The fate of these carbon-hoarding habitats will play a big role in our planet’s climate future.

Randy Kolka hands me a fist-sized clump of brownish-black material pulled up by an auger from a bog. It’s the color and texture of moist chocolate cake. When I look closely I can see filaments of plant material. This hunk of peat, pulled from 2 meters (7 feet) below the surface, is about 8,000 years old. I’m holding plants that lived and died before the Egyptians constructed the pyramids and before humans invented the wheel. In my hand is history. And carbon gold.

“That’s the oldest [from this bog] right there,” says Kolka, a soil scientist with the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station.

Two hundred miles north of Minneapolis, I’m visiting the Marcell Experimental Forest, which has conducted research on northern Minnesota peatlands since 1960. These peatlands — the largest in the lower 48 — got their start during the end of the Ice Age when depressions carved out by great glaciers created pools for sphagnum moss and other water-loving vegetation to take root.

“That [peat] was probably put on when it was more of an herbaceous community … usually there’s a progression,” Kolka explains. Most peatlands today were born as lakes — “sometimes at the bottom … you’ll find shells,” Kolka says — then became marshes and finally bogs with meters of carbon-rich peat going back millennia.

Peatlands are created when dead vegetation subsides, partially decayed and partially preserved, into waterlogged landscapes or when the water table rises, overtaking the vegetation. The organic material doesn’t fully degrade due to a lack of oxygen in the wetlands. It accumulates and compresses, trapping the carbon the living plants had captured from the air. Over the long epochs of time, peatlands today could become coal deposits tomorrow, essentially storing carbon in perpetuity — unless someone decided to burn it for energy.

Superheroes of Ecosystems

Peatlands are the superheroes of ecosystems: purifying water, sometimes mitigating flooding and providing a home for rare species. And they beat nearly every system when it comes to carbon storage. Known peatlands only cover about 3 percent of the world’s land surface, but store at least twice as much carbon as all of Earth’s standing forests. And at least one-third of the world’s organic soil carbon, which plays a vital role in mitigating climate change and stabilizing the carbon cycle, is in peatlands.

“From a climate perspective, [peatlands] are the most essential terrestrial ecosystem,” says Tim Christophersen, a senior program officer with Forests and Climate at the United Nations Environment Programme.

Most essential, but long overlooked.

Unlike rainforests or coral reefs, peatlands have largely been ignored by researchers and policy-makers. They have been so neglected that we don’t even know where all of the world’s peatlands are. Scientists used to believe that the vast majority of the world’s peatlands were in boreal and temperate areas — like Minnesota — but we now know that the tropics are also home to massive areas of peatlands.

Early in 2017 scientists announced they had discovered the world’s largest tropical peatland in the Congo. The massive peatland — covering an area larger than New York State — stores as much carbon as is emitted from burning fossil fuels globally in three years, about 30 billion metric tons (33 billion tons).

“Many countries still do not know if they have peatlands,” Christophersen says.

A study published this year in Global Change Biology estimates that tropical peatlands — the most important in terms of carbon storage — may cover three times more land than previously estimated. But they are difficult to find because not all wetlands contain peat. The only way to know for sure is to send researchers to sample the soil, and that takes money.

Greta Dargie, a research fellow at the University of Leeds, helped discover the peatlands in the Congo. She says the best way to uncover the world’s still-hidden peatlands and make sure they aren’t destroyed for agriculture is to start with satellite data and “identify areas which have the potential [for peatlands].”

Under Threat

As researchers look for unknown peatlands, the peatlands we do know about are under threat from a wide variety of human impacts. Historically, they’ve been seen as wastelands that can be conveniently converted into agriculture, since people don’t usually live on them.

“Peatlands are facing tremendous pressures due to deforestation, conversions and drainage for agriculture, and infrastructure development,” says Daniel Murdiyarso, a senior scientist with the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research.

Sixty percent of the world’s known tropical peatlands are in Southeast Asia (though a recent Global Change Biology study estimates that South America, not Southeast Asia, may in fact hold more peatlands) where destruction is rampant. In Indonesia, vast tracts of peatlands have been drained to make room for palm oil or pulp and paper plantations. 

Like humans, peatlands need water to survive. When peatlands are drained, the compressed organic matter begins to decay, turning long-submerged carbon into carbon dioxide and adding more greenhouse gases to our already overheated atmosphere. Complicating matters, peatlands and all wetlands, are natural sources of methane, a more potent but shorter-lived greenhouse gas. In some cases, draining may actually decrease methane emissions.

Drained peatlands also become susceptible to burning — and when they burn, they are almost impossible to put out. In 2015 Indonesia’s peatlands burned en masse after years of draining and deforestation. The fires spread a toxic yellow haze over much of the region. The crisis cost Indonesia over US$16 billion, according to the World Bank; released more than 800 million metric tons (more than 900 million tons) of CO2; and, according to one study, led to the premature deaths of 100,000 people in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Murdiyarso says that palm oil, pulp and paper, and other agricultural businesses in Indonesia may be considered “success stories” in terms of profit, “but if the environmental costs are internalized, the story will be different.”

Indonesia is not doing this, but since the 2015 fires the country has set a total moratorium on any development in peatlands. However, mixed messages from regional governments, lack of clear land tenure and corruption mean the central government has its work cut out for it.

The Good News

The good news is that if we block drainage canals, peatlands can be partly restored by preventing water levels from declining further. Planting native plants in degraded areas can also help by retaining water. Further damage can be mitigated by such measures, but whether damaged peatlands will ever recover their lost carbon and ecological potential, Kolka says no one knows, and if they can, timescales could be in the thousands of years.

One potential way to secure the world’s vulnerable peatlands is through the global carbon market. It took Indonesian entrepreneur Dharsono Hartono nine years to secure a Verified Carbon Standard for his Katingan Mentaya Project in Borneo. But today, according to Hartono, it’s the largest land use VCS project on the planet, covering 157,875 hectares (390,000 acres) of peatland containing a gigaton (1.1 billion tons) of carbon, and a vital community project promoting less carbon-intensive agriculture. Carbon storage varies by peatland but generally is 30–70 kilograms (66–154 pounds) of carbon per every cubic meter (35 cubic feet).

“This is a long-term business, you just have to be persistent,” Hartono says, adding that now that his “product” is ready he’s on the look out for buyers.

Hartono started the project with a focus on climate change, but he says it has since transformed: “It’s become a story of the people,” he says, who are the “heart and soul” of the project.

Thirty-four villages surround Hartono’s concession in a buffer area that is partly peatlands as well. In order to protect the main site from fires, the project also has to change neighboring farms. Hartono and his team have spent the past few years helping communities shift from slash-and-burn farming to what he calls “climate-smart agriculture.”

“You have to find a solution, you can’t just tell people not to burn,” he says.

They developed a program of using cover crops of legumes to suppress weeds and injecting select bacteria into the soil to decompose organic matter rapidly, which provides extra nutrients to the soil without burning. They are also encouraging farmers to steer away from planting oil palm and instead focus on a diverse set of crops.

“We want to build the forest back in the community land,” Hartono explains. With community buy-in, Hartono may not only succeed in protecting one of Indonesia’s largest intact peatlands, but also improve lives of those who live nearby by better protecting the environment they depend on and allowing them to avoid the social and economic issues — such as price shocks, heavy pesticide use and dealing with large corporations — that come when local farmers depend only on palm oil.

The Unanswered Climate Question

But even finding and protecting peatlands may not be enough in a warming world.

Back in Minnesota, Kolka takes me to visit the research center’s newest and most important project: SPRUCE, or the Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Changing Environments. A collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, SPRUCE may be the most cutting-edge research on peatlands today.

Here, 10 massive open air chambers sit along three boardwalks. In some of these 8-meter- (26-foot-) high chambers, researchers are adding heat — both above and below the peat — to mimic a warmer atmosphere. In other chambers, researchers have added higher concentrations of CO2. Some get both treatments.

SPRUCE scientists are trying to answer a potentially world-changing question: How will peatlands react as the world warms and CO2 concentrations rise? Scientists fear that peatlands may go from being a carbon sink to a massive, unstoppable source. If climate change causes peatlands to dry out, it could mean a slow — or possibly sudden — release of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Further warming, more potential release of CO2: a textbook example of a positive feedback loop. Even more worrying are the bogs, fens and peatlands locked in the permafrost further north: if those melt, researchers fear a sudden influx of massive amounts of both CO2 and methane.

The project is in its infancy, but Kolka says so far the good news is highlighted in a 2016 SPRUCE study that found heating the peat does not result in a loss of carbon or methane below 1 foot (o.3 meters), which means old carbon may stay locked away even in a significantly warmer world.

Kolka says SPRUCE will help inform climate models for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. group that provides scientific and economic research to the world’s governments on climate change.

We hike out deeper along a boardwalk into one of the bogs, where the peat goes 8 meters (26 feet) deep.

“This is sort of one of my favorite places on the planet out here,” Kolka says. “This is what I consider the ultimate bog.”

Although 150 years old, the trees are thin and straggly; the mosquitoes are out and feasting; the land is flat and unstable. I wonder how many people would see the landscape as Kolka does.

“It does things that no other ecosystem does from a functional stand point, from processing chemicals to nutrients. It’s one of the harshest environments on the planet,” he says. “And one of the most important.”

It’s then that I realize, to save peatlands, we need to see them differently. View Ensia homepage