Thinking Spatially

Growth of the Peatlands

The world is warming, and our target is to keep the warming at or below 1.5°C. This target can only be reached if we transform the drained peatlands back to their natural conditions.

map of world peatlands

During COVID procrastination, I read the novel “Growth of the Soil” by Knut Hamsun, who was honoured with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920. The novel is about a man and his family who tame nature in Norway. Knut Hamsun described the decades of human efforts to change the environment and make peatlands suitable for crop cultivation. The peatlands were drained for agricultural and forestry purposes in Finland, Estonia, Sweden and many other northern countries. The peatland transformation was a matter of survival at that time. Similarly, nowadays, the matter of survival for our future generations is bringing those peatlands back to their natural conditions.

The future of humanity is in danger because of global climate change. The world is warming, and our target is to keep the warming at or below 1.5°C. This target can only be reached if we transform the drained peatlands back to their natural conditions – i.e., restore peatlands. Ironically, we should spend as much or more time on peatlands restoration than our ancestors on peatland drainage.

While draining peatlands, our ancestors did not know that peatlands are incredibly efficient at capturing carbon from the atmospheric CO2 gas and storing it as plant remnants for thousands of years. The thickness of this remnants layer can reach dozens of meters since peatlands’ waterlogged conditions prevent plant remnants from decomposition. Moreover, our ancestors did not have an idea that covering only ~3% of the total land area, peatlands store 1/3 of the total soil organic carbon, most of which is stored in northern peatlands. Much less our ancestors could even know about modern satellites, which researchers like me use to monitor peatlands restoration progress.

Monitoring restoration is an exciting and, at the same time, frightening activity since our current restoration progress will shape the world in the future. By measuring a set of peatlands' parameters from space, we know restoration efficiency and estimate how much potential carbon emissions we have avoided. Restoring peatlands is a very efficient way of climate change mitigation, but peatlands remain rarely known for this importance. Maybe the next author who writes a novel about peatlands restoration will get the Nobel Prize in Literature.

About the author: Iuliia Burdun is a postdoc in geoinformatics in Aalto University.

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