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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
For years, this is known as a smoky, hazy time of year in Sumatra, Indonesia. And each year it’s getting worse. It’s the dry season, and hundreds of thousands of hectares of Indonesian peatland fires will burn for months. Those fires are a direct result of decades of forest and peatland destruction.
Peat is partially decayed, dead vegetation, which has accumulated over thousands of years. It is typically saturated with water and therefore virtually impossible to set alight. But when peatlands are cleared and drained to make way for plantations, like they are for palm oil and pulp and paper, carbon-rich peat becomes tinder dry—and vulnerable to fires.
If you haven’t heard of peatlands or don’t really know why we should all be joining forces to protect them, here are some facts that will help you see why:
Last year, Greenpeace was one of the first NGOs to call out palm oil companies for their role in peatland fires. The Haze Wave sent pollution levels in Singapore skyrocketing, sparking frenzied buying of facemasks and a flurry of meetings between regional governments.
This year it could get worse. Weather patterns are colluding to make this year’s drought particularly strong. More peat and forest have been cleared than ever before. It’s giant tinderbox.
Now is the time for action.
In the last 12 months, Greenpeace supporters have pushed companies like Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and forest-resource giants like Asia Pulp & Paper to end their role in forest destruction. There’s momentum. Which is why this year we need to come together and demand that outgoing Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono firms up his green legacy.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.