The vulgar science of peatlands


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A field team collects organic material and soil samples in Kalimantan using a specially designed peat auger. Photo courtesy of Daniel Murdiyarso

BALI, Indonesia (14 April, 2011)_Though not a word we commonly come across in English, to vulgarise is often used in French and Spanish to mean “communicating in simpler, layperson’s language”. As I sit in on the business-end of CIFOR’s international workshop in Bali on Tropical Wetland Ecosystems of Indonesia, I start to feel a need for some vulgarisation.

The importance of tropical wetland ecosystems and their effect on climate change is the main focus of this workshop. As a communicator sitting in a room full of world experts on wetlands, mangroves and tropical peatlands, I appreciate and admire the audience’s ability to absorb the complex information being thrown at them.

But on hearing about microbial activities, carbon dynamics on decadal to millennium time scales, flux measurements, remote sensing, ameliorants and carbon accounting, I go in search of scientists to help me digest the meanings of these words.

So my first question is: What exactly is a peatland? Isn’t it those spongy, grassy hills in Scotland where the single malt whiskies are distilled?

“Well, yes” one scotch loving scientist tells me, “beneath that grass is peat.”

Matthew Warren from the US Forestry Service who is studying wetlands in Indonesia uses the metaphor of a chocolate cake to describe the soil, “Imagine in the cake there are random sections which are thicker – with the texture of a chocolate brownie – that part is particularly rich in carbon. Other sections are more like sponge and a different flavour – these will have a different carbon stock.”

A core sample from a Central Kalimantan peatland forest. Photo courtesy of Gusti Anshari

Scientists have also found that lowland mangrove and peatland forests hold huge amounts of carbon in the wet soil where they lay their roots. This carbon has been built up over thousands of years and because it is wet, the carbon it can store is up to four times more than a normal or upland rainforest.

Indonesia is home to 23% of the world’s mangroves and over 28 million hectares of mangrove and peatland forest. When these forests are destroyed, the carbon released from the soil is alarming. The greenhouse gas emissions from deforesting peatland forests are up to 50-100 percent higher than deforestation of normal rainforest.

“Whether peatlands or mangroves,” Boone Kauffman, also from the US forestry Service and one of the organisers of the conference said, “they are highly carbon rich ecosystems, that emit remarkable amounts of emissions when the land cover is changed.”

In some areas this peat is extremely deep and extremely old. When I talk to Gusti Anshari from the University of Tanjungpura, who has studied peatland and forests in Kalimantan for over 30 years, he tells me in some areas around Danau Sentarum the peat descends 17 metres below the ground.

His core samples exposed the peat to be up to 50,000 years old. His study showed that, carbon stocks were still high – the deeper the peat. So in these extremely deep peat forests – cumulatively the carbon stock is huge especially compared to mineral soils that normal upland forest grows on, where carbon is only stored in the top 10 centimetres of soil.

CIFOR scientist, Louis Verchot tells me that when peatland is drained for oil palm and other agricultural plantations, it is usually drained and the carbon it stores is released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases.

“When you drain peat you expose all the organic matter in the soil to decomposition and this released large amounts of carbon for long periods.”

“To make matters worse, during drier El Niño years, fires escape from nearby farmland and rip through peatland. You can get twenty years worth of emissions in a couple of weeks.”

As scientists continue to discover and understand how to preserve and restore these complex ecosystems, the vulgarisation of these concepts will become increasingly important to help us curb climate change. So perhaps, instead of being a communicator, I should start calling myself a forest vulgariser.

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