Updated: Apr 26, 2021
Peatlands are still a fairly unknown topic, but if we want the public behind us when asking for more peatland protection, we need to change that. Since today is Earth Day, it is a great opportunity to talk about peat with a wider audience.
To do just that, we took a look at some of the most googled questions around peatlands. This is (we hope) a comprehensive guide to peatlands that can be used and shared over and over.
Have another question you want us to answer? Comment below or message us on twitter @CarbonCentre
What is a peatland / what is a peat bog?
"Peatlands are terrestrial wetland ecosystems in which waterlogged conditions prevent plant material from fully decomposing." - International Peatland Society
But what is peat?
Peat is natural material (mostly plants) not fully decomposed which has built up over time, making it an excellent fuel source and carbon store. In this way it is similar to coal and oil, although much ‘younger’ and so not as dense with organic content. It is a non renewable resource – it takes a long time to form significant areas of peat, referred to as peatland, which are incredibly important habitats.
The Oxford Languages defines it as:
"A brown deposit resembling soil, formed by the partial decomposition of vegetable matter in the wet acidic conditions of bogs and fens, and often cut out and dried for use as fuel and in gardening.”
Although we’d love to prevent peat from being removed from the peatlands - read on to find out why.
Are peatlands wetlands?
Yes! A wetland is defined as a type of land that is submerged in water. Healthy peatlands have a high water table and are often waterlogged. A slight exception are the raised bogs, which have essentially grown higher than the surrounding water table, but because of poor drainage around them, are still often waterlogged. These bogs can be really, really deep – more than ten meters deep, sometimes!
Are peatlands Carbon sinks?
Yes, but more importantly, degraded (unhealthy) peatlands are carbon sources, which means they are releasing carbon into the atmosphere and are contributing to climate change. In the UK, 80% of our peatlands are classed as degraded in some way. The estimate is that peatlands in the UK are releasing 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and equivalent gases a year (4% of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions!). You can find more information on degraded peatlands in the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology factsheet here.
We need to focus on restoring peatlands before they can start building new peat, which is how they become a carbon sink and therefore help tackle climate change.
Healthy peatlands naturally release some methane, but this is far less than their impact when degraded.
Why are peatlands important?
There are so many reasons why peatlands are important. They’re unique habitats, so have loads of highly adapted wildlife; they can help tackle climate change when healthy; they’re really connected to our waterways and, if eroding, not only can it cost a huge sum to extract from the water, but they can also contribute to downstream flooding if the peatland is unhealthy. There are loads more reasons – read our blog on a similar topic here.
Where are peatlands found?
Peatlands are found all over the world, wherever conditions are suitable for them. These conditions typically include wet climates, where soil is saturated with water over a long period of time (creating anaerobic, or oxygen free, conditions, and exerting pressure on the material underneath due to its weight). The UK has 13% of the global blanket bogs (one of three types of peatland found here), which is an amazing figure and shows why it’s more important than ever to restore our damaged peatlands. Peatlands can also be found across the world; take a look at the map here.
How are peatlands formed?
When land typically in a wet climate produces more organic matter than is lost (via decomposition or the break down of this natural material), because it is under anaerobic, acidic conditions, the material not fully broken down forms a huge store of organic matter. In fact, peatlands hold about 30% of the global soil carbon (on land), and yet are only about 3% of the global land area.
On many peatlands, peat mosses (sphagnum, see below) are the most common peat building species.
Why are peatlands acidic?
What does get broken down in peatlands naturally releases acids into the environment. Unlike in a typical system, however, these acids do not move through the system, because of the waterlogged nature of healthy peatlands.
In addition, typical peatland plants like sphagnum further acidify the land when taking up nutrients such as calcium and magnesium, as it releases acids during the process.
This is, of course, a very simple summary of what is a complicated set of processes.
What can I do to protect peatland?
Another action you can take is to ask your local representatives about what they’re doing to protect peatlands, or support the environmental charities doing the work. Even talking about it with people and children to help raise awareness of peatlands is so important. They’re sometimes referred to as ‘the UK’s rainforests’ because they are so important and necessary to protect. And yet they are such an unknown!
We’d love for you to make a commitment to protecting our peatlands for Earth Day 2021.