The power of peat

A wintery sun begins to set in the north pennines

A wintery sun begins to set in the north pennines

Last August I was lucky enough to be one of thirty budding scribes shortlisted for the inaugural Guardian / Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize. I was invited to spend an afternoon at a science writing workshop at the Guardian HQ, hosted by Alok Jha, where the shortlistees had the opportunity to extract some top tips from established science writers James Randerson, Michael Regnier and Stephen Curry. The evening consisted of a glitzy awards ceremony, hosted by Dara O’Briain at the Wellcome Collection, in which the winners Tess Shellard and Penny Sarchet were announced.

The event was very inspiring and I had a fantastic time; creative juices were in full flow and it was great to have the chance to chat with so many like-minded people. My writing has since had to take a back seat while I finish my PhD, but it’s worth noting that the 2012 Science Writing Prize is to be announced soon!

Below is my original entry to the competition, an edited version of which was published on the Wellcome Trust blog not so long ago.

The power of peat and the climate challenge

When: Sometime after lunch, Tuesday 15th March 2011.

Where: 600 metres up in the north Pennines.

The temperature is supposed to be ten degrees centigrade, but it feels much colder. It’s raining, horizontally – a puddle has actually formed on the page of my notebook. My fingers are frozen, everything is sodden. Every effort is bent on protecting the £5000 box of electronics that I’ve been entrusted with on this important mission, which cannot be allowed to get wet. Why am I here?

My mission, as I chose to accept it nearly three years ago when I started my PhD, is to study an upland peat bog. As a vital part of our planet’s life support system, peat bogs are up there with the rainforests. While the trees in Amazonia are doing the glamorous part, being the lungs of the world and providing us with clean air to breathe each day, peat is sitting there on lonely fell-tops and windy tundra, quietly soaking up the rest of the emissions we produce and swallowing up the occasional sheep. Without peat, we’d be further along the path to a warmer world than we are right now.

Since I began my research, I’ve discovered that working in a landscape that is classified as sub-Arctic, despite its location more than one hundred miles south of Edinburgh, comes with its own set of challenges. Peat is ninety per cent water. Both equipment and field workers can get stuck in the bog all year round, while in the winter blankets of snow cover everything.  In summer, tufts of white cotton grass bob gently on the breeze and sometimes it stops raining, causing swarms of midges to descend upon the unwary scientist. Linnaeus felt the weight of the fieldwork challenge, investigating the mires of Lapland back in 1732:

“The whole of this Lapp country was bog, which is why I call it the Styx. No priest has ever painted Hell so vile that this does not exceed it, no poet described a Styx so foul that this does not eclipse it.”1

He wasn’t keen then. It’s not surprising that peat bogs have a bit of an image problem. But it’s their inhospitable nature that makes them so vital. The cold and wet conditions help peat to lock up CO2 from the atmosphere, storing it as organic carbon. Since the end of the last ice age over ten thousand years ago, our rainy bogs have been soaking up more than a quarter of all the organic carbon stored in soils globally. All that carbon is stored in dark brown, wet deposits many metres deep, with the texture and colour of chocolate sponge cake but none of the charm.

The problem is that, if the sponge cake starts to dry out, thousands of years’ worth of accumulated carbon will start returning to the atmosphere as CO2 faster than the peat can store it, ruining our attempts to slow our changing climate. A loss of less than two per cent of our planet’s peat bogs would be equivalent to the amount of CO2 released by humans annually2. So much for cycling to work and buying organic. Once our peat bogs start losing CO2, it might be difficult to stop them.

There are many threats to peat bogs: drainage for farming, extraction for fuel, wildfires and erosion are four of the more serious. Luckily our attitude towards peat bogs has improved since Linnaeus’ day, and that’s why I find myself crouching in the heather, trying not to sink into the peat while keeping my expensive scientific equipment dry.

My research focuses on the carbon side of the peat bog story. How much do peat bogs store away? How much do they release, and are they storing it away at the same rate? Those are two of the questions I’d like to answer. There is a great variety of research taking place on peat bogs, with topics ranging from erosion to heavy metal pollution, from reconstructing past climates to the importance of peat as a wildlife habitat. They might be under-appreciated, but our peat bogs provide us with a wealth of services: they hold a vast amount of water, provide space for recreation and are a refuge for many rare plant and animal species. Perhaps most importantly for us, they are a crucial tool in our efforts to slow our changing climate. There’s the power of peat.


1 Quoted in Rydin, H. and Jeglum, J.K. 2006: The biology of peatlands. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 262.

2 Figures from presentation by Smith, P., given at ‘Investing in Peatlands – the Climate Challenge’ conference, Durham, 28-29th September 2010.

Winter fieldwork at Moor House

Working on an upland peat bog in the North Pennines comes with its own set of challenges, from dense clouds of midges in summer to freezing conditions in winter. Below are some photos from my fieldsite at Moor House, taken in February. The snow was so deep that driving into the fieldsite was impossible, but we enjoyed the walk.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Embedded below is a map, showing the approximate location of the field site where I do most of my work. More about Moor House to follow!