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Peatland ‘core domain sets’ to streamline measurement and reporting

Standards proposed for better data synthesis and less research waste
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Dompas Village, Bengkalis. Photo by Perdana Putra/CIFOR-ICRAF

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The world’s peatlands are vital for combating climate change, thanks to their vast carbon stores. But researchers and policymakers can’t make the most of their value if that isn’t measured, monitored and reported consistently.

That may be about to change, however, thanks to a proposed methodological framework set out in newly published research that could help provide the evidence needed to protect, restore and sustainably manage peatlands – and, indirectly, carbon capture.

“We are proposing how we could standardize peatland data collection,” says Mark Reed, lead researcher of a new study published in the journal Mires and Peat.

“Our goal is for more and more people to collect data on the same variables in ways that can be readily synthesized,” adds Reed, professor of Rural Entrepreneurship and Co-Director of the Thriving Natural Capital Challenge Centre, Scotland’s Rural College, Edinburgh.

“This is very significant, because when peatlands data are collected using the same variables and in ways that can be readily synthesized, this enables more robust, evidence-based policies.”

The research paper addresses an underlying problem: how to compile and synthesize evidence from across multiple studies to inform policy and practice, when different outcomes have been measured in different ways; or, perhaps, datasets and models have not been fully or consistently reported.

To deal with this, the authors – based on workshops with peatland researchers and policy-makers from around the world over a three-year period – proposed a set of key variables, known as “core domain sets”, as part of a methodological framework required to help science better inform policy. Identifying and prioritizing the most important outcomes people should measure in peatland research and monitoring were targeted as key.

Reed and co-authors discuss steps to standardize methods for measuring and reporting outcomes in peatland research and monitoring. They note that their methodological framework approach could also be applied in other fields of conservation, ecology and environmental science, and thus help reduce ‘research waste’ – that is, where findings can’t be used beyond the sites in which they were collected.

Given the importance of peatlands in the global carbon cycle, their provision of other essential ecosystem services, and the significance of peatland research and monitoring in mitigating climate change, it is particularly important to improve the standardization of data collection and reporting to enable evidence synthesis, note the authors.

Core outcomes were grouped in four areas: climate, dealing with such issues as rate of peat accumulation and decomposition,and changes in biomass; hydrology, including direct measures of water depth; biodiversity, including abundance and composition of peatlands indicator species and habitat extent; and fire, including extent and depth of burns.

Peatlands are made up of partially decayed plants that accumulate under waterlogged conditions. Intact peatlands have been long-term carbon sinks and although they cover less than three percent of global land surface, estimates suggest that peatlands contain twice as much carbon as in the world’s forests, according to the Global Peatlands Initiative.

Peatlands are found in most of the world, from UK to Indonesia to northern Canada; in permafrost regions, at high altitudes, in coastal areas, beneath tropical rainforest, and in boreal forests. Terms commonly used for specific peatland types include peat swamp forests, fens, bogs or mires.

Researchers are encouraged to ask such questions as: what do we want to know about the peatland of interest; what are the broad domains within which to define outcomes in these peatlands; what target domain outcomes should be measured in each type of peatland; which of these outcomes are the most important to measure; how should each outcome be measured; and how and when should the data be reported to be synthesized and interpreted effectively.

Further research is needed to tackle the challenges of standardizing methods for data collection, management, analysis, reporting and re-use, according to the paper. It describes the published research as “a first step” towards creating datasets that can be synthesized to inform evidence-based policy and practice, and contribute towards the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of peatlands.

This research was conducted as a work-strand in the UNEP-led Global Peatlands Initiative, and the UK workshop was supported by the IUCN UK Peatland Programme.

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