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Power to the peat

9 Jan, 2012

In the latest of our shortlisted entries to the 2011 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, Mike Whitfield explains the difficulties of undertaking fieldwork on a peat bog and looks at the role they play in preventing climate change.

When: Sometime after lunch, Tuesday 15th March 2011.

Where: 600 metres up in the north Pennines.

The temperature is supposed to be ten degrees centigrade, but it feels much colder. It’s raining – horizontally – and a puddle has actually formed on the page of my notebook. My fingers are frozen, everything is sodden. Every effort is bent on protecting the £5000 box of electronics that I‟ve been entrusted with on this important mission, which cannot be allowed to get wet. Why am I here?

My mission, as I chose to accept it nearly three years ago when I started my PhD, is to study an upland peat bog. As a vital part of our planet’s life support system, peat bogs are up there with the rainforests. While the trees in Amazonia are doing the glamorous part, acting as the lungs of the world to provide us with clean air to breathe each day, peat is sitting there on lonely fell-tops and windy tundra, quietly soaking up the rest of the emissions we produce and swallowing up the occasional sheep. Without peat, we‟d be further along the path to a warmer world than we are right now.

Since I began my research, I’ve discovered that working in a landscape that is classified as sub-Arctic, despite its location more than one hundred miles south of Edinburgh, comes with its own set of challenges. Peat is ninety per cent water. Both equipment and field workers can get stuck in the bog all year round, while winter brings the added challenge of a blanket of snow that covers everything. In summer, tufts of white cotton grass bob gently on the breeze and sometimes it even stops raining, causing swarms of midges to descend upon the unwary scientist. Linnaeus felt the weight of the fieldwork challenge, investigating the mires of Lapland back in 1732:

“The whole of this Lapp country was bog, which is why I call it the Styx. No priest has ever painted Hell so vile that this does not exceed it, no poet described a Styx so foul that this does not eclipse it.”1

He wasn’t that keen then… It’s unsurprising that peat bogs have a bit of an image problem. But it’s their inhospitable nature that makes them so vital. The cold and wet conditions help peat to lock up carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, storing it as organic carbon. Since the end of the last ice age over ten thousand years ago, our rainy bogs have soaked up more than a quarter of all the organic carbon stored in soils globally. All that carbon is stored in deposits many metres deep, with the texture and colour of chocolate sponge cake, but none of the charm.

If the peat starts to dry out we’ll have a big problem. Thousands of years worth of accumulated carbon will start returning to the atmosphere as CO2 at a faster rate than the peat can store it, ruining our attempts to slow our changing climate. A loss of less than two per cent of our planet’s peat bogs would be equivalent to the amount of CO2 released by humans annually2. So much for cycling to work and buying organic. Once our peat bogs start losing CO2, it might be difficult to stop them.

There are many threats to peat bogs – drainage for farming, extraction for fuel, wildfires and erosion are four of the more serious. Luckily, our attitude towards peat bogs has improved since Linnaeus’ day, and that’s why I find myself crouching in the heather, trying not to sink into the peat while keeping my expensive scientific equipment dry.

My research focuses on the carbon side of the peat bog story. How much do peat bogs store away? How much do they release? Are they storing it away at the same rate? Those are some of the questions I’d like to answer. There is a great variety of research taking place on peat bogs, with topics ranging from erosion to heavy metal pollution, and reconstructing past climates to the importance of peat as a wildlife habitat. They might be under-appreciated, but our peat bogs provide us with a wealth of services, holding vast amounts of water, providing space for recreation and acting as a refuge for many rare plant and animal species. Perhaps most importantly for us, they are a crucial tool in our efforts to slow our changing climate. That’s the power of peat.

Mike Whitfield

This is an edited version of Mike’s original essay. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in association with the Guardian and the Observer and read our ‘How I write about science‘ series of tips for aspiring science writers.

Over the coming months, we’ll be publishing the shortlisted essays in this year’s inaugural competition.

1. Quoted in Rydin, H. and Jeglum, J.K. The biology of peatlands. Oxford University Press. Pg 262. (2006)

2. Figures from presentation by Smith, P., given at the ‘Investing in Peatlands – the Climate Challenge’ conference, Durham, 28-29th September 2010.

Image Credit: Graham_Stone on Flickr

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