Climate Change Increases Thawing of Frozen Peatlands

by Saarang Kashyap

Right now, huge amounts of carbon are stored in boggy, often frozen regions stretching across the northern parts of the world. Over many millennia, these regions, commonly referred to as peatlands, have played a key role in cooling the global climate. As the world progressively warms up however, thawing of permafrost and the peat inside it is expected to release huge amounts of CO2, leading to devastating consequences on the climate.

As stated in UnEnvironment, “peatlands are characterized by a thick layer of dead plant remains, or peat. The water-saturated, oxygen-free, and permafrost conditions prevent peat from full decay and allow it to accumulate over thousands of years. The intricate relationships between peat, vegetation, water, and ice maintain the delicate balance of permafrost peatlands.” It’s estimated that the northern hemisphere’s frozen soils and peatlands hold about 1,700 billion tons of carbon, four times more than humans have emitted since the industrial revolution, and twice as much currently present in the atmosphere.

Using data compiled from more than 7,000 field observations, the authors of a new study were able to generate the most accurate maps to date of the peatlands, their depth, and the amount of warming gas they contain. They show that the boggy terrain covers 3.7 million sq kilometers (1.42 million sq miles). The researchers say the northern peatlands store around 415 gigatonnes of carbon. That’s roughly equivalent to 46 years of current global CO2 emissions.

What has contributed to the breakdown of peatlands? Climate Breakdown is not the only factor directly influencing the changes in permafrost peatlands. Any disturbance to the surface soil can lead to permafrost degradation, including natural processes such as forest or tundra fires, and human activity, such as industrial and urban infrastructure development as well as mining, tourism, and agriculture. The removal of trees and shrubs leads to more solar heat input, permafrost collapse, and wetter conditions. Open water accumulates summer heat and acts as a heat source in winter, affecting the distribution of permafrost.

Even though the situation looks grim, scientists believe in the restoration of the bogs through investment efforts. Experts also mention that as frozen peat thaws out,  it starts to become capable of growing plants and storing warming gases.