Peatlands: Solution or Problem

Teresa Jones ‘24

A corpse, hundreds of years old, but preserved so well- some might mistake it for a modern murder victim. A 4,700-year-old wheel and a 10,500-year-old canoe were preserved almost perfectly [1]. What could do this? It must be some sort of chemical, right? Some new technology, maybe. Right? Wrong! This magic substance has been around for longer than humans. Long seen as useless, Peatlands have been making a comeback.
Peatlands are a type of wetland that occur in almost every country and are known to cover at least 3% of global land surface. The magic of Peatlands is their water-logged conditions. These conditions halt the decomposition of plants by trapping carbon underneath the surface, leading the plants to form a substance known as peat.
There are Peatlands in almost every country, but there are substantial amounts of peatlands in Canada, Finland, Alaska, Russia, and around the tropics. Scientists estimate that around 15% of the world’s peatlands have been lost due to human activity [2].
While Peatlands are often seen as yucky, muddy areas, they are crucial to the plan to halt climate change. The UN considers peatlands a “nature-based solution” for climate change [2]. This means that peat can be used to soak up carbon from the atmosphere, and therefore delay climate change.
Peatlands don’t only trap carbon; they can release it too. When peatlands are drained, whether paved over, or flooded to form hydroelectric dams, they go from absorbing carbon to spewing it. Drained peatlands emit about 2 billion tons [that’s billion with a b as in boy] of accumulated carbon every year [1].
Indonesia’s carbon emissions have reached substantial levels over the past decades, and that has to do with peatlands. Farmers have set fire to peatlands in order to clear the area for palm oil production. These fires smolder for months, emitting, “an almost criminal amount of carbon” [2].
Have I ever seen peatlands? The answer is probably yes. The Northern US is home to some of the largest peat deposits in North America. The Hyper-Hums, an area that stretches from New Jersey’s western border to the New York state line, is a 1,400-acre area that is full of peatlands [4]. When you step on peat, it should feel bouncy, like walking on a mattress. This effect is due to the millimeters of moss that have been formed year over year since the last ice age.
So, how can we use this amazing substance to our advantage? Scientists agree that the first step needs to be restoring the water-logged conditions that are required for peat to thrive. The definition of peatlands varies country by country, but due to the rapid acceleration of climate change, any area that could be considered peatlands needs to be conserved.