Quantcast
Climate
A team from Greenpeace Africa has been studying tropical peatland near Lokolama. Kevin McElvaney / Greenpeace

Climate Change and Deforestation Threaten World’s Largest Tropical Peatland

By Daisy Dunne

Just over a year ago, scientists announced the discovery of the world's largest intact tropical peatland in a remote part of the Congo's vast swampy basin.

The Cuvette Centrale peatlands stretch across an area of central Africa that is larger than the size of England and stores as much as 30 billion tonnes of carbon.


Now, the same research team has published a new study finding that future climate change, along with deforestation, could threaten the peatlands' ability to soak up and store large amounts of carbon.

If left unaddressed, these threats could cause the Congo peatlands to turn from a carbon sink into a carbon source, the study says. This means that the peatlands could contribute to climate change by releasing more carbon than they are able to absorb.

Protecting the peatlands from climate change will require "an international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," the lead author told Carbon Brief.

Peat Power

The Cuvette Centrale, which spans both the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (see map below), is the second-largest tropical wetland in the world.

Location of the Cuvette Centrale wetlands in Africa (in green)Dargie et al (2017)

The peatlands within the Cuvette Centrale covers 145,500 sq km and contains 30 percent of the world's tropical peatland carbon, according to the 2017 Nature paper. This is equivalent to about 20 years' worth of U.S. CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Across the world, peat covers just 3 percent of the land's surface, but stores one-third of the earth's soil carbon.

Peat is a wetland soil made of partially decomposed plant debris. It is usually found in cooler, waterlogged environments, explained Dr. Greta Dargie, a research fellow from the University of Leeds and lead author of the study published in the journal Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change. She told Carbon Brief:

"Under waterlogged conditions, the usual decomposition of dead trees and leaves is slowed, meaning there is a build-up of carbon-rich material which we call peat. A long slow build-up means that peatlands store enormous quantities of carbon."

Future climate change presents one of the largest threats to the Congo peatlands, the new study finds.

The latest assessment report (pdf) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finds that the region could warm by around 0.5°C from 2000 to the end of the century under a low-emissions scenario (RCP2.6) and by 4.5°C under a high-emissions scenario (RCP8.5).

It is less clear how global warming could affect rainfall in the region, but research (pdf) suggests that the peatlands could experience an overall reduction in rainfall and an increase in the number of dry periods as the climate warms.

A combination of less rainfall and higher temperatures could cause parts of the peatlands to dry out, which could reduce the rate of plant decomposition and, therefore, the rate that the peatlands can absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Drier conditions could also prompt the peatlands to start releasing larger amounts of carbon, said professor Simon Lewis, a study author from the University of Leeds and University College London, and one of Carbon Brief's contributing editors. He told Carbon Brief:

"The critical insight here is that the central Congo peatlands are probably maintained by rainwater. So, even modest reductions in dry season water-logging, perhaps through rising temperatures and increasing evaporation rates, would mean the whole system moves from a carbon sink to a carbon source."

In other words, climate change could cause the Congo peatlands to start releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than it is able to absorb.

Forest Under Threat

Another threat to Congo's peatlands could come from a potential rise in deforestation for wood and palm oil production in the region, the study notes.

The removal of trees from above peatlands can leave large areas of ground exposed to the sun, which can cause the boggy ground to dry out. This can cause the peatlands to release carbon at a faster rate.

At present, government officials from the DRC have granted logging access to 20 percent of the forested peatlands. The extent of the logging concession agreements (red outlines) is shown on the chart below, where dark grey indicates peatland and light grey shows other types of land cover.

At least one concession agreement (shown in shaded red) has also been approved for the construction of an oil palm plantation in the Republic of the Congo part of the peatlands, which would take up 4,200 sq km of forested peatlands.

Extent of logging concessions (red outlines) and oil palm concessions (shaded red) granted in the Cuvette Centrale. Dark grey shows the location of the Cuvette Centrale peatlands, while light grey shows other types of land cover. Dargie et al. (2018)

Despite these agreements being reached, logging operations are yet to commence in the peatland forests. This is likely to be because the DRC introduced a national ban on logging in 2002, the study notes.

However, the country's government is currently considering lifting this ban, which would mean logging could be permitted across large areas of the peatland region.

Plans to lift the ban are being driven forward by the French Development Agency (AFD) with financial support from the Norway-led Central African Forests Initiative (CAFI), Lewis said. These groups argue that lifting the ban could aid social development in the region and make it easier to curb illegal and unregulated deforestation.

On top of this, the peatlands could also be affected by plans to construct hydroelectric dams in region, including the Grand Inga hydropower project. Such projects could divert water away from the wetlands, the study notes.

Overall, the peatlands face an immediate risk from deforestation and land-use change and a more long-term threat from climate change, Lewis said:

"The competing threats of direct land-use change and climate change are difficult to compare. The speed with which land can be converted is fast and can quickly kill large areas of swamp forest. But other areas would probably remain unaffected. The speed of climate change is slower than the movement of bulldozers, but could affect the entire peatland."

Protecting Peat

To protect the peatlands in the short term, policymakers should consider introducing new environmental protections to the region, the authors wrote in their paper:

"Further research, therefore, needs to integrate knowledge from local communities, the natural sciences and social sciences, to develop a more holistic understanding of the Cuvette Centrale peatlands and facilitate local communities and their governments to manage and protect this globally significant region."

However, protecting the peatlands from the threat of climate change will require a long-term "international effort," Dargie said:

"With climate change, there is also the added complication that Republic of the Congo and DRC government policies and interventions alone will not be enough to avoid any negative impacts on the Congo Basin peatlands. That will require an international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Carbon Brief.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Climate
Map of damage to the town of Paradise from the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history. NASA / JPL-Caltech

Heavy Rain Could Trigger Mudslides in Fire-Weary California

Northern California, which is already reeling from the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history, is now bracing for heavy rainfall this week.

The forecasted rain could bring much-needed relief for the firefighters battling the Camp Fire in Butte County. However, it could also bring new hazards due to possible ash, mud and debris flows triggered by the rain.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
A Super Scooper firefighting plane makes a water drop during the Holy Fire near Lake Elsinore, California this October. David McNew / Greenpeace

What Should We Know About Wildfires in California

By Rolf Skar

The Camp Fire raging in Northern California is now the most devastating and deadly fire in the state's recorded history. Simultaneously, deadly and destructive fires are burning in Southern California, as the Woolsey and Hill fires have engulfed iconic areas of Malibu and West Hills. With dozens dead, hundreds missing and thousands of structures destroyed, our hearts go out to those impacted across the region.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Ambrosia artemisiifolia, common ragweed. PLOS ONE

Allergen Alert: Ragweed Is Spreading to New Regions

By Marlene Cimons

Cristina Stinson never had an allergic reaction to ragweed until after she started working with it. "I think the repeated exposure to the pollen is what did it," she said. It also didn't help that her community is chock-full of it. "There is plenty of ragweed in my neighborhood," she said. "In fact, it grows right outside my door."

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
A sperm whale that washed up in Indonesia's Wakatobi National Park had plastic bottles, bags and cups in its belly. @WWF_ID / Kartika Sumolang

13 Pounds of Plastic Found in Dead Sperm Whale

Yet another whale has suffered from plastic pollution. A sperm whale that washed up dead in a national park in Indonesia had nearly 13 pounds of plastic waste in its stomach, park officials told the Associated Press.

Researchers from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the park's conservation academy uncovered more than 1,000 other pieces of plastic, including 115 plastic cups, four plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags, 2 flip-flops and a nylon sack.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
The first smoke from the Camp Fire arrived in Ukiah and turned the daylight red. Bob Dass / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Winds and Wildfires in California: 4 Factors to Watch That Increase Danger

By Brenda Ekwurzel

Before we dive into the science behind the four factors specific to the California Santa Ana winds, let's review the current situation in California and wildfire disaster risks in general.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
A woman stands amidst the ruins of her home following Hurricane Michael; if action isn't taken on climate change, some places could face up to six such disasters at once. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Tropics Could Face Six Climate Disasters at Once by 2100

In a year that saw record-breaking heat waves, record-breaking hurricanes and record-breaking wildfires, it's hard to imagine how the future could look any more like a disaster movie than the present. But that is exactly what researchers from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa have predicted in a study published in Nature Climate Change Monday.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Politics
Zinke tours Paradise, Calif. Nov. 14 with Governor Jerry Brown and FEMA Administrator Brock Long. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Zinke Blames ‘Radical Environmentalists’ for Historic California Wildfire

In an interview with Breitbart News on Sunday, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke blamed "radical environmentalists" for the wildfires that have devastated California in recent weeks, The Huffington Post reported.

"I will lay this on the foot of those environmental radicals that have prevented us from managing the forests for years. And you know what? This is on them," he said in the interview.

You can listen to the whole thing here:

The remarks come as California has suffered the deadliest blaze in the state's history. The death toll from the Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise in Northern California, has now risen to 79. Around 1,000 people are still listed as missing, and the fire is now 70 percent contained, according to an Associated Press report Monday.

California Governor Jerry Brown blamed climate change in a statement made last weekend.

"Managing all the forests everywhere we can does not stop climate change, and those who deny that definitely are contributing to the tragedies that we are witnessing and will continue to witness," Brown said.

Regardless, Zinke has remained consistent in pointing the finger at forest management. His current criticisms echo his remarks following other fires this August, in which he said the increasingly frequent and violent blazes were the result of inadequate forest management, and not climate change. He continued in that vein during Sunday's interview:

"In many cases, it's these radical environmentalists who want nature to take its course. We have dead and dying timber. We can manage it using best science, best practices. But to let this devastation go on year after year after year is unacceptable, it's not going to happen. The president is absolutely engaged."

President Donald Trump has indeed vehemently blamed forest mismanagement ever since the recent batch of fires broke out, even threatening at one point to withhold federal funding if the forests weren't managed properly. During a visit to California Saturday to survey damage, Trump brought up forest management again, suggesting that the problem in California was that the forests were not raked enough.

"You look at other countries where they do it differently, and it's a whole different story," he said, as CNN reported. "I was with the president of Finland, and he said: 'We have a much different [sic] ..., we're a forest nation.' And they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don't have any problem," he added.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, however, told a Finnish newspaper he did not recall suggesting raking to Trump.

"I mentioned [to] him that Finland is a land covered by forests and we also have a good monitoring system and network," he said.

Finnish people have taken to Twitter to poke fun at the U.S. President's statement using the hashtag "Raking America Great Again."

Despite Trump and Zinke's criticisms, the fact remains that the federal government controls almost 60 percent of the forests in California while the state controls only three percent. Paradise was surrounded by federal, not state, forests. Further, the fires in Southern California spread in suburban and urban areas, The Huffington Post reported.

Some think the emphasis put by Zinke and Trump on forest management is not about preventing fires at all but rather an attempt to justify opening more public forests to private logging interests.

U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks with land managers, private landowners, university staff, and the media about federal forestry and land management at Boise State University on June 2, 2017. USDA photo by Lance Cheung

Animals
Dolphin found with a bullet wound in California's Manhattan Beach. Marine Animal Rescue / Facebook

'Senseless Killing': Dolphin Found Shot Dead on California Beach

How could anyone shoot a dolphin? A dolphin that washed up dead in Manhattan Beach, California died from a bullet wound, according to local animal rescue workers.

Earlier this month, Peter Wallerstein, the founder of Marine Animal Rescue, responded to a call about a stranded dolphin on the surf, according to NBC News. By the time he arrived at the scene, the marine mammal was dead.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!