Will the discovery of peatland in the Congo Basin help us understand and fight climate change?
What is peatland and why is it important?
Peatland is an accumulation of decomposed plants in an area that is saturated by water. Preserving peatland is essential for the climate and global ecosystem as these areas are the most efficient carbon storing sinks on the planet. They store, for instance, twice as much carbon as an equivalent area of forest. Peatlands are also very rare as they represent overall only 3% of the total land area of the planet. They also store biological information that can go back to thousands of years and which can provide a strong basis for research on the climate and environment of that area.
For all those reasons, discovering a new peatland is a major breakthrough!
What about this discovery?
A team of scientists led by Simon Lewis, researcher at the University of Leeds, just discovered a peat bog the size of England in the Republic of Congo, the heart of the Congo basin. The area (between 100,000 and 200,000 square kilometres) is in the north of Congo (around the village of Itanga), in one the world’s biggest wetlands. It is also home to a large population of gorillas and elephants.
This breakthrough is particularly unusual as peatlands are normally found in the northern hemisphere, in zones where plant decomposition is slow, rather than in the warm tropics.
Dr Lewis explains that the peatland acts as “a historical record” as it captures the environmental history of the area and that investigating the carbon-rich material left in the peat could inform us on 10,000 years of climate and environmental change. The team brought back carbon samples to the UK to analyse and try and learn more about Congo’s role in the global climate.
Why did we only just find out?
The peat was discovered in a very remote area, where it’s only possible to walk for a couple of months per year, right at the end of the dry season. It is also hard to access as the ground is permanently water-logged. This region had therefore not been thoroughly explored before and the peat was, in fact, first spotted by satellite images.
Adding to the geographical remoteness, political instability in the Central Africa region over the last few decades has made it more difficult to venture on these grounds.
And now what?
It is now clear that this discovery could have important implications for predicting and mitigating climate change in the region and globally. It is therefore essential that the peatland is and remains protected. Today, its remoteness provides a certain degree of protection. Part of the peatland is also in a community reserve, managed jointly by the NGO Wildlife Conservation Society, the government and local people, according to a management plan.
However, one major threat to the peatland remains deforestation and forest degradation. Trying to convert peatlands into palm oil and paper plantations in Indonesia proved to be disastrous. No longer a carbon sink, Indonesias’ peatlands are today a significant source of CO2 emissions and continue to deteriorate rapidly.
The lesson learned from Indonesia’s peatland shows how important it is that a strong legal framework is in place to protect the Congolese peatland against potential detrimental exploitation, such as intensive logging or agricultural plantations.