For Pete’s Sake, Save the Peat

by Bill Chameides | December 8th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 3 comments

Peatland fires — which have produced massive plumes of haze and air pollution that can spread over thousands of miles — have become a significant source of global warming pollution. (Indonesia/Sumatra, 2006, NASA)

If it isn’t already, someone needs to put peat on the agenda at Copenhagen. There’s a whole lotta carbon at stake.

Peatlands are the stuff that coal eventually is formed from. You know the argument that some make about leaving all that coal just where we’ve found it — in the ground? It should probably be applied to peat as well. Here’s why.

Peatlands Store Huge Amounts of Carbon

Peat is an agglomeration of dead vegetation, typically found in marshes and bogs and such. The unique thing about peat is that it just kind of sits there. Most of the Earth’s dead vegetation does not stay around very long. Because of the presence of oxygen, it gets oxidized pretty quickly, often as a result of being eaten by one bug or critter or another.

But bogs and marshes are often depleted in oxygen and so the peat in these systems can stay intact for a very long time. Some of the world’s peatlands formed some 20,000 years ago and have been accumulating carbon in the form of dead plant material ever since.

Peatlands comprise a tiny fraction of the Earth’s surface — perhaps three percent of the land area — but they are reservoirs of huge amounts of carbon. By some estimates it’s as much as 550 billion tons of carbon — or roughly an amount of carbon equivalent to all the carbon dioxide (CO2) that has been emitted by burning fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. Clearly we don’t want even a small part of that carbon to be converted to CO2 and let into the atmosphere.

Peatlands at Risk

But if peatlands have been around accumulating dead stuff for tens of thousands of years, what’s to worry? A lot, because we have begun draining peatlands at ever increasing rates. And once a peatland is drained, the carbon that has been stored for millennia begins to seep out.

Even more worrisome is the fact that once drained, peatlands are essentially tinder waiting to be ignited and burned, and the carbon from burning peatlands doesn’t enter the atmosphere slowly — it is emitted as one giant slug of carbon dioxide.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a commentary in Nature Geosciences written by G.R. van der Werf of the University of Amsterdam (and two of my Duke colleagues) that estimated that burning tropical peatlands was responsible for the emissions of about 0.3 billion tons of carbon per year. That’s nothing to sneeze at:

  • it’s only about four times smaller than the carbon emitted from burning tropical rain forests that cover a much larger land area (estimated to be about 1.2 billion tons of carbon per year); and
  • it’s not all that much smaller than emissions from burning fossil fuel — about eight billion tons of carbon per year.

In other words, draining and burning peatlands has become a significant source of global warming pollution to the atmosphere.

Indonesia – Peatland Burning Hotspot

Indonesia is a case in point where peatlands are increasingly being converted to make way for palm-oil and pulp-wood plantations. The palm-oil plantations produce biofuels of course — not a great way to lower greenhouse emissions, you think?

The clearing and draining of pleatlands have set off huge peatland fires — fires so huge, that in some cases they have produced plumes of haze and noxious air pollution covering thousands of miles.

The fires are most intense during periods of El Nino-induced droughts. And the CO2 emitted from these fires can be staggering. During the 1997-98 El Nino episode, peatland fires in Indonesia caused an estimated release of CO2 equal to about 10-40 percent of the mean annual global fossil fuel emissions.

One Fire Can a Lot of Carbon Make

The scope and impact of even a single peatland fire event can be huge. Consider a recent paper by scientist Uwe Ballhorn of Ludwig-Maximilians-University and colleagues published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Using a variety of remote-sensing techniques, they took a detailed look at peatlands in Central Kalimantan, Borneo, which had experienced an extensive burning in 2006. The emissions from that one single event were estimated at ~50 (+/- 25) million tons of carbon: about the same as the CO2 emissions coming from the state of New York for an entire year.

Think of all the activities carried out by some 19 million people living in the Empire State that lead to CO2 emissions — all the cars and houses and factories. And those emissions over an entire year were roughly equaled by a single peatland wildfire event in Borneo.

Channeling Copenhagen

Much has been made in recent years of the need to slow the burning of the tropical rain forests in countries like Indonesia and Brazil. A proposed program [pdf] aimed at reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation — commonly referred to as REDD — would allow countries like the United States to offset its emissions by paying tropical rain forest countries to preserve their forests.

The program is high on the must-include list in any new global climate agreement. Might not be a bad idea for the negotiators to morph REDD into REDD&PD to include reducing emissions from peatland destruction.

Related Content

  • Peatland photos from the New York Times
filed under: carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, El Nino, faculty, global warming
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  1. Erica Rowell (Editor)
    Dec 15, 2009

    Don’t forget to follow the Copenhagen proceedings from the point of view of the Nicholas School students who are attending the meeting –

  2. Name
    Dec 8, 2009 Wow – 79 Yale people at COP15. Good to see St. Lucia also sending people.

  3. Jim
    Dec 8, 2009

    I think ultimately, this and other land use issues is going to be the larger problem long term. Eventually alternative energy sources and technology will help to offset a lot of the CO2 from energy generation, though we still have a lot to reduce in the shorter term. But there doesn’t seem to be as many options technology wise for land use, there is only responsible and sustainable land use, by using less and in better ways. Also, land use issues don’t seem to be on the political radar as much so doesn’t get as much attention.

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