Tropical peatland research

Katy Roucoux and Ian Lawson

In recent years it has become clear that peatlands are much more extensive in the tropics than previously thought. Working with a number of collaborators, we have spent much of the past few years helping to discover and describe these new ecosystems. Our work has shown that, by mass, there is about twice as much peat in Amazonian Peru as in the whole of Scotland, and about ten times as much again in the central Congo basin.

Picture of a peat core being opened.

Sampling peats in a palm swamp in the Pastaza-Marañón Basin, Peru. Many palm swamps are underlain by up to several metres of peat, which is made up of the partially decayed remains of past vegetation.

Peatlands store large amounts of carbon locked up in the peat itself, so these discoveries have significance for our understanding of carbon cycling and the global climate system. The peat itself also holds a fascinating record of past environmental change, which we have been deciphering using techniques such as pollen analysis.

Researchers use coring equipment to sample peats in Peru.

Some Amazonian peatlands are covered by a thin-stemmed, low-canopied forest type that has yet to be fully described. Studies of the peat can reveal how the ecosystem has changed through time.

More recently our work has begun to explore the possibilities for harnessing carbon conservation funding to promote socio-economic development for the communities who live in these often remote regions. Already our group’s work has been used to make the scientific case for a US$ 9.1M development project in Peru.

A new phase of research into Amazonian peatlands is being funded by a NERC project led by Drs Lawson and Roucoux, “Carbon Storage in Amazonian Peatlands: Distribution and Dynamics”. This project will involve new fieldwork campaigns in Peru and other Amazonian countries in order to collect new data on the relationships between rainfall, river flooding, and vegetation growth and decomposition. We will also develop new remote sensing techniques to refine our mapping of the vegetation associated with peat, and take important steps towards understanding the present day distribution of peatland carbon stocks, and how those stocks may change in future.

For more on this research topic, see our dedicated website.