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Moscow smog mainly caused by burning peatlands


The thick smog in Moscow is for 80 to 90 percent caused by fires in drained peatlands near Moscow. Despite the relatively small areas where the peat fires occur, these are the fires that cause the massive air pollution in Moscow involving major risks for the health of residents of the region, as well as enormous CO2 emissions. Peat fires are difficult to extinguish and may continue to burn underground for months, even after rainfall like last night.

Major health risks

Peat fires cause totally different smog than forest fires. The smog in Moscow is currently so terrible because of the burning peatlands. The poisoning smoke caused by burning peat contains - unlike forest fires - very small soot particles that after inhalation forever attach between the pulmonary alveoli. This increases the risk of lung cancer and emphysema and causes major problems for people with asthma and other respiratory disorders.

Chance of worsening

Currently, some 500 hectares of peat are on fire in the east and southeast of Moscow, spread over many small drained peatlands with a total area of 60,000 hectares. There is therefore a very high risk that these fires are still going to expand substantially as long as the drought persists. The bogs are extremely sensitive to fire because of meters deep drainage for peat extraction. Although most peat extraction ended in the nineties of the last century, the drainage never stopped. Drainage is often 4 to 5 metres deep. In the last few years, the Russian government has again encouraged peat extraction for meeting the energy needs of local people.

Very difficult to extinguish
The measures that are currently being taken, including the deployment of water bombers, are nowhere near enough to stop the peat fires. The meters thick peat in Russia contain approximately ten times more combustible organic material than above ground biomass (forests) and can continue for a long time under the surface. The extremely dry peat can absorb 1000 times more water than their dry weight. The expectation is therefore that some of the peat fires will continue to rage till deep in the winter. Most of these fires will continue after rainfall like last night. Only after prolonged rains these fires will extinguish.  Peatfire in Russia

There is little knowledge among the Russian authorities about how to address the peat fires. The current approach to use water bombers is not useful; the water directly disappears into the bone-dry peat layers. The long rewetting of peat is the only way to prevent future fires. This requires the drainage of these areas to be halted, in part by blocking drainage channels. In fen peatlands this is also the best way to extinguish the current fires.

Putin calls for rewetting Russian peatlands
During discussions with the governor of Moscow, Boris Gromov, Prime Minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has called for a federal program for rewetting Russian peatlands to fight fires in the future.
According to Wetlands International, an NGO that works to sustain and restore wetlands worldwide, this is indeed the only effective way to minimise peat fires in the future.

Almost every year peat fires occur in several regions of Russia, but mainly in abandoned or sparsely populated areas. Especially former peat mining areas suffer from fires. This year the peat fires have spread wider to other regions due to the extreme drought conditions. The fires in the immediate vicinity of large cities like Moscow have increased the consciousness of the problems of the fire-prone drained peatlands rapidly and the issue has now caught the attention of decision makers at all levels. Peat mining in Belarussia


Large greenhouse gas emissions
Rewetting drained peatlands not only helps to prevent future fires, but also makes a significant contribution to reducing annual greenhouse gas emissions. The organic peat soils in boreal regions in Russia contain about 10 times more carbon than above-ground biomass (forest). In Russia peatland drainage leads annually to an estimated 160 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from soil oxidation; peat fires not included (source: University of Greifswald, 2009,Global CO2 Peatlands Picture).

 Russia has the second largest CO2 emissions from peatland destruction worldwide, after Indonesia, where many fires occur because of peatlands drained for palm oil and pulp plantations. Globally, the CO2 emissions from peat amount to about 2 gigatons per year, including emissions from peat fires.

For more information:
Wetlands International, Alex Kaat
Phone: +31 (0) 6 5060 1917 / E-mail: @ alex.kaat wetlands.org
Web: www.wetlands.org/peatclimate



Background to Peat and CO2 emissions

For thousands of years carbon from the atmosphere has been sequestered in peat and remains stored there as long as the area remains wet. However, when these areas are drained and exposed to oxygen it is converted into carbon dioxide (CO2) which is then released into the atmosphere. Globally peatlands contain twice as much carbon as all forest biomass. Peatlands only cover 3% of the world's land area and  10-15% is drained. These drained areas are however responsible for 2 Gigatons of CO2 emissions, which is nearly 6% of global CO2 emissions. In dry years, the emissions can be many times higher. By rewetting peatlands these emissions can be largely reduced.

More and more countries recognize that peatland rewetting can be an important and cost effective investment, both to reduce CO2 as well as for other reasons. Iceland for example, wants to reduce its CO2 emissions through rewetting their peatlands drained for agriculture. Scotland is also developing plans, both for climatic reasons and also for the provision of clean drinking water. Reducing the emissions from peatlands has been proposed as part of a new climate treaty since 2008. Wetlands International, which has been promoting the rewetting of peatlands in the climate negotiations for years now hopes for a rapid positive decision on this. The IPCC has already been commissioned to explore further guidelines for the accurate measurement of greenhouse gases from peatlands.


Activities Wetlands International in Russian peatlands:
Russia has until now invested in peatland rewetting only on a project basis. The most impressive rewetting project is in the National Park Meschera in the Vladimir province, where 2000 ha of degraded peatland is being rewetted. This activity, supported by Wetlands International since 2002 has provided essential knowledge on the scientific, practical and socio-economic aspects of peatland rewetting.

Currently Wetlands International Russia works on a Decision Support System to support the Russian authorities to identify the most efficient and urgent areas for rewetting. This work is part of the International Climate Initiative of BMU (Federal Ministry of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety of Germany), and is conducted together with the University of Greifswald, Succow Foundation and the Institute of Forest Science of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Press contact

Communications and Advocacy Department
Email: communications@wetlands.org