NOV 20, 2018 2:31 PM PST

Peatlands may soon become carbon sources

Amazonian peatlands have historically stored a large amount of soil organic carbon. But that might be changing. New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently suggests that before the turn of the century Amazonian peatlands could turn from a carbon sink to a carbon source. Carbon sinks refer to biomes that hold carbon (like forests, of the oceans) and thus keep carbon out of the atmosphere and limit warming. Carbon sources refer to biomes that produce carbon and admit it into the atmosphere.

Peatlands are the most efficient natural carbon sinks out there. If left alone, they are capable of holding more carbon dioxide than all other vegetation types on Earth combined. Also, the formation process of a peatland takes a really, really long time – meaning undisturbed peatlands hold carbon dioxide from thousands of years past.

"Global peatlands cover only about 3 percent of global land area, but hold around 30 percent of the earth's soil organic carbon," said Qianlai Zhuang, a professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at Purdue University. "Peatlands act like a 'terrestrial ocean' because of their sequestering carbon, but will this large amount of peat carbon be released under a warmer climate, causing further warming?"

Zhuang asks this question because of some of the characteristics of peatlands. As good as peat is at absorbing atmospheric carbon, if these ecosystems are drained and deforested (as they are more and more often), they can release almost 6% of global carbon dioxide emissions annually, according to Science Daily. Were all the peatlands that are sucking up carbon dioxide instead emit it, the world we live in would look a lot scarier.

Scientists from Purdue University investigated the chances of this happening in their new research. They explain how they used “a process-based peatland biogeochemistry model to quantify the carbon accumulation for peatland and non-peatland ecosystems in the Pastaza-Marañon foreland basin (PMFB) in the Peruvian Amazon from 12,000 y before present to AD 2100.”

Peat coring at Quistococha peatland, Peru. Photo: UK Tropical Peatland Working Group

Their results had two main findings: 1) higher temperatures result in more peat carbon loss, and 2) increased precipitation slightly enhances the build-up of peat carbon over long timescales. Future climate predictions suggest that we can anticipate both higher temperatures and increased precipitation in the Amazon. The scientists say that these two outcomes combined will ultimately increase carbon loss from peatlands to the atmosphere, meaning those carbon sinks may convert into carbon sources – and soon.

Sources: Science Daily, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
You May Also Like
MAY 22, 2020
Earth & The Environment
Mount St. Helens: 40 Years of Recovery
MAY 22, 2020
Mount St. Helens: 40 Years of Recovery
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption in southwestern Washington. According to ...
JUN 04, 2020
Earth & The Environment
COVID-19 Lockdown Leads to Decreases in Outdoor Air Pollution, but Increases in Indoor Air Pollution
JUN 04, 2020
COVID-19 Lockdown Leads to Decreases in Outdoor Air Pollution, but Increases in Indoor Air Pollution
With most of North America sheltering in place to prevent the further spread of COVID-19, it’s not surprising that ...
JUL 06, 2020
Earth & The Environment
The story behind a soil
JUL 06, 2020
The story behind a soil
Soil scientist Karen Vaughan from the University of Wyoming knows how to classify a soil well. There’s a science t ...
JUL 07, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Common mineral found to destroy forever chemicals in contaminated water
JUL 07, 2020
Common mineral found to destroy forever chemicals in contaminated water
You have probably heard the recent concerns about PFAS, otherwise known as per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) or fore ...
JUL 11, 2020
Earth & The Environment
The disappearance of Australia's seagrass
JUL 11, 2020
The disappearance of Australia's seagrass
Australia is losing its seagrass. That’s according to a new report released by marine scientists at the Centre for ...
JUL 16, 2020
Plants & Animals
Almost All Wild Bee-Plant Networks Have Been Disrupted or Lost
JUL 16, 2020
Almost All Wild Bee-Plant Networks Have Been Disrupted or Lost
In the wild, bees rely on the flora and fauna in their environment to survive. Networks of plants and their pollinators ...
Loading Comments...