Peatlands, the carbon cycle & climatic change

In the UK there are two main types of peatbogs, blanket bogs and raised bogs. Blanket bogs occur on hill tops which receive over 2000mm of rain a year and are called blanket bogs as they appear to be draped across the underlying topography. Raised bogs occur in valley bottoms where water flow is retarded allowing the establishment of bog species which further retards water flow leading to an accumulation of plant material. Raised bogs are called raised because the accumulation of plant material forms a raised dome above the surrounding topography and water table.

Peatlands are historic sinks of carbon, removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in recalcitrant forms of carbon where acidic and water logged conditions prevent decomposition. Peatland environments are the UK’s largest store of carbon. The carbon stored in UK peatlands is equivalent to 3 years of total UK carbon emissions. Therefore, it is critical to preserve these peatlands and restore damaged peatlands to carbon sinks once more.

Peatlands in the UK have been damaged in a variety of ways. The south Pennine blanket bogs have been subjected to decades of pollution from both Manchester and Sheffield, this pollution has led to widespread reduction in peat forming plants species. The southern Pennines has a history of wildfire events which removes the vegetation from the peat surface exposing the peat below. This led to subsequent rapid and widespread erosion of the peat creating gullies up to 3 meters deep with a loss of 2cm per meter squared from the peat surface. Raised bogs have suffered a similar fate having been commercially extracted for the horticultural industry leaving large areas of bare peat.

As peatlands are large carbon stores concerns have been raised over the future stability of these stores due to climate change. Climate change in the UK predicts warmer summer temperature, increased frequency of summer drought, and increased frequency and intensity of winter rainfall. It is predicted that climate change will affect peatbogs and the resilience of peatbogs to change is unknown.

James Rowson’s research investigates the restoration potential and climate change resilience using a combination of environmental sampling and modelling techniques. Environmental monitoring consists of a suite of techniques including greenhouse gas monitoring, soil pore water sampling for pH, conductivity and cation and anion concentrations all of which are modelled against data collected continuously by dataloggers to provide ecosystem responses to climate change and restoration.