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The Mad Dash to Figure Out the Fate of Peatlands

Published on:
  • Climate mitigation and adaptation
  • Peatland conservation and restoration
  • Sustainable land use

As the planet’s peat swamps come under threat, the destiny of their stored carbon remains a mystery.

133- MS- Conversion into oil palm estates, illegal logging and destruction of drainage canals - the main causes of peatland degradation.
Workers in Sumatra process an oil palm harvest from the plantation on the left even as the remnants of the natural peat swamp forest in the distance are burned to make way for new plantations. Photo by Marcel Silvius

With every step he took, Jon Nichols’ boots squelched on the ground beneath him. He recorded his surroundings on a grainy cellphone video, and despite the damp, gray day, Alaska’s Chugach Mountains still provided a stunning backdrop to the tall spruces and low-growing scruff at his feet. He and two colleagues wound their way along the edges of Corser Bog, a damp patch of earth 10 miles due east of Cordova, Alaska, a lonely dot on the map not far from where the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker ran aground in 1989.

“On we trudge,” Nichols said, “through the muskeg meander.”

Muskeg is another name for the peat bogs he studies, and Nichols was slogging through the muck that day in 2010 in pursuit of core samples to learn how the 12,000-year-old bog formed. As a paleoecologist and peat researcher with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Nichols still works to understand how peat originated and how it might form—or decay—in the future.

Second only to the oceans in the amount of atmospheric carbon they store, peat bogs are integral to the Earth’s carbon cycle. Most peat started forming after the last ice age, roughly 12,000 years ago, and for millennia, they’ve been important carbon reservoirs. Now, though, with a warming planet and new weather patterns, the future of peat bogs has been called into question, including how fast they might start releasing all their stored carbon in the form of carbon dioxide.

This article originally appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine, continue reading.