As more of the world’s forests are destroyed, it makes you wonder: what’s going to absorb CO2 in their place?! In an ironic twist of fate, one of Earth’s “deadest” habitats might be our best hope for an ongoing supply of breathable air.
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Called peatlands, these wetland environments are named for their tendency to accumulate decayed plant matter. Unlike most other ecosystems, like forests, where branches and leaves typically decompose in a matter of months… in peatlands, that plant material can stay intact for millenia. You see, peatlands mostly exist in high altitude places where temps are low and there’s not much water flow. This results in their having extremely low oxygen and high acidity levels. These harsh conditions aren’t very hospitable to microbes and fungi, which are instrumental to the whole decomposition process. So without them around, the plant material sort of… just sits. Over time, that it globs together to form peat, a thick, spongy material that can soak up 20x its weight in water.
Peat also soaks up loads of carbon. Through a process known as the Calvin cycle, living plants absorb CO2 from the air and convert it into organic molecules that they can then use as energy to grow. Through decomposition, the carbon that’s “fixed” in a plant’s structure gets released but since peat doesn’t decompose, that carbon can stay put! It’s estimated that peatlands contain 550 gigatonnes of organic carbon, which is twice as much organic carbon as all the world’s forests combined. That’s absolutely wild, considering that forests cover about 30% of the world’s land area… and peatlands only account for 3%!
Like most of the world’s habitats, peatlands aren’t immune to the threats of human development and exploitation. Peat is also are a very in-demand resource. Its incredible water holding capacity makes it a favorite amongst horticulturists; If you’ve ever picked up a bag of soil amendment, chances are it’s full of the stuff. Since peat is also a fossil fuel with a long burn, it’s used in some parts of the world. Peatlands are also often drained to accommodate other land use activities, like agriculture.
#elements #science #CO2 #carbon #climatechange #environment
The Mad Dash to Figure Out the Fate of Peatlands
“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.”
Europe’s Famed Bog Bodies Are Starting to Reveal Their Secrets
“Tollund Man is the best-looking and best-known member of an elite club of preserved cadavers that have come to be known as “bog bodies.” These are men and women (also some adolescents and a few children) who were laid down long ago in the raised peat bogs of Northern Europe—mostly Denmark, Germany, England, Ireland and the Netherlands.”
Hot New Environmental Threat: Zombie Fires That Come Back to Life
“Packed deep within carbon-rich soils and insulated by feet of snow, zombie fires can smolder for months, long after firefighters have extinguished the surface flames. As the snow melts and the soil begins to dry out, flames can reignite on the surface and spark larger blazes. This poses a problem not only for people and property, but for the climate, too.”
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