Peat – sink or source

It was reported in the news today that the UK’s carbon emissions rose by 1.25% over the last year, while overall greenhouse gas emissions stayed on Kyoto targets. Many people won’t be too concerned by this rise, seeing that we are still well below the 1995 CO2 emissions and have reduced other greenhouse gases.

I am concerned, however, after having worked in the uplands and gained firsthand knowledge of a potential time bomb for carbon emissions that is ticking right under our feet. So what is this time bomb that I am talking about? Well, it is the UK’s peatlands (including upland and lowland mires, mosses and blanket bogs).

The UK has approximately 537,700 ha (see JNCC) of peatland included within legislated protected areas. They play a vital role in the carbon cycle, acting as either a major sink or source of CO2. James Rowson (University of Durham) has been measuring peatland gas emissions over the past year. He has shown that when dry, peat bogs release vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, significantly increasing CO2 emissions (High Peak, Derbyshire alone would produce the same amount of CO2 as 15,000 cars in an average year). However, when wet, peat is like a massive sponge extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, keeping it locked underground. The National Trust is currently trying to conserve parts of the UK’s peatlands by creating small dams in the gullies that criss-cross them in an attempt to hold the water in the uplands and moisten the surrounding exposed peat.

Please note that, although I have focused on the UK in this blog article, it is worth stating that other areas e.g. the Siberian permafrost zone, are also likely to cause similar problems. 

For further information and to hear what James Rowson has to say about peat bogs you can watch a BBC news report here. Further information on peatlands and peat can be obtained by searching CAB Abstracts.

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