• Peatlands

Peatlands: Fascinating Ecosystems Characterized by Water, Plants, and Peat

Peatlands store peat due to waterlogging of plants. They are extraordinary ecosystems and fascinate because of their impressive variety. They are habitat for specialized animal and plant species, function as storage for water, nutrients and carbon, and provide many other ecosystem services.

About Peatlands

A peatland is an area with a naturally accumulated peat layer at the surface. A mire is a peatland with vegetation that actively forms peat [1]. Due to the interaction of vegetation, water and peat, mires are self-regulating systems and influence their local climate and hydrology. About 15 % of peatlands worldwide are drained and cause 5 % of the global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.

Intact, ‘living’ peatlands display high genetic, species and ecosystem diversity and store enormous amounts of fresh water and carbon. Many peatlands, including most European peatlands, have been drained and modified for improved production. This has led to the loss of biodiversity and the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases. Rewetting and utilizing these peatlands allows integration of conservation and production through wet, low environmental impact forms of peatland agriculture.

Peatlands provide habitats for rare, endangered and highly specialized species.

Carbon Storage & Climate
Peatlands are highly effective at carbon sequestration, and store more carbon than all forests in the world, even though they only cover 3% of the land surface, a tenth of the area covered by forests.

Other Ecosystem Services
Natural peatlands provide many other valuable ecosystem services such as water retention and nutrient uptake, improving water quality.

Kieshofer Moor near Greifswald

Peatland Use

Conventional land use of peatlands requires drainage, which causes problems such as high greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient efflux, loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, and increasingly impaired land use options. In Germany, more than 30 % of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by the agricultural sector originate from degraded peatlands, which make up only a minor fraction of agricultural land (s. fig.).

Fig.: Greenhouse gas emissions caused by agriculture on drained organic soils in Germany. (sector agriculture plus crop- and grassland management) (German Federal Environmental Agency 2016 [3]).

Current agricultural practices are not adapted to peat soils. Continued agricultural use of peat soils requires large investments and thus many areas have been abandoned. However, in recent years biomass crop cultivation has increased pressure on marginal lands, including peatlands. This development aggravates the above mentioned problems.

Agriculture and Forestry
Agriculture is the most important driver of peatland drainage and has the highest total environmental impacts. Annually, about 30 t CO2-eq. per ha are emitted. The intensification of forestry production is a strong driver for drainage activities and creates similar emissions as agricultural activities.

Peat Extraction
Peat used as growing media is a vital part of modern industrial horticulture. In some European countries peat is also still used as fuel.

Paludiculture is the productive use of wet peatlands. It is an alternative to drained peatland use, preserving the peat body and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Peatland Conservation

Peatland Protection is Climate Protection
The conservation of mires and the rewetting of drained peatlands is connected with high greenhouse gas emission savings. Stopping the degradation of the peat body through rewetting is beneficial for biodiversity and the water body too. Wet peatlands fulfill many ecosystem services and saves the peatland as an archive which contains information about the past millennia.

Further Information and Sources
  1. Crump J (Ed.) (2017): Smoke on Water – Countering Global Threats From Peatland Loss and Degradation. A UNEP Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal, Nairobi and Arendal.
  2. Wichtmann, W., Schröder, C. & Joosten, H. (eds.) (2016): Paludiculture - productive use of wet peatlands - Climate protection - biodiversity - regional economic benefits. 272 p. ISBN 978-3-510-65283-9
  3. Umweltbundesamt (2016) National Inventory Report, Germany – 2016
  4. Wetlands International (2015) Briefing paper: accelerating action to Save Peat for Less Heat!
  5. Wilson D., Blain D., Couwenberg J., et al. (2016): Greenhouse gas emission factors associated with rewetting of organic soils. Mires and Peat, Volume 17 (2016), 1-28
  6. Joosten, H., Tanneberger, F. & Moen, A. (Eds.) (2017) Mires and peatlands of Europe - Status,
    distribution and conservation. Schweitzerbart Science Publishers, Stuttgart. 780 p.