Saving our Global Peatlands
Space4Good joins the Global Peatland Initiative working to save and restore the world’s largest carbon sink
Image 1: Highland peatlands
Although peat bogs only cover 3% of the land surface, they contain as much carbon as peat soils and the entire biomass of all the forests of the world (Source). Greenhouse gas emissions from unsustainable peat management, such as disturbance for agriculture, fires and peat mining, account for 5% of total global emissions and are rising due to increasing peat degradation in the range of two billion tonnes CO2 per year. The Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI), led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), aims to develop and implement new approaches to the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of peatlands by combining science, practice and policy. Space4Good is delighted to join the ranks of the GPI members, including WWF, Conservation International, CIFOR and ESA, and many more.
Image 2: Peat cutting, Ireland
The thick organic, water-saturated soil layer, called peat, consists of decaying and dead plant material, and peat bogs include marshes, swamps, bogs and tundras. (source). According to the Global Peatland Initiative, it is estimated that more than 550 gigatons of carbon, which accounts for 42% of the planet's total soil carbon, are in wetlands that cover less than 5% of the land surface. Peat bogs are huge carbon deposits in the soil permanently saturated with water. Today's widespread use of peat bogs for forestry and agriculture requires drainage, resulting in significant emissions of carbon dioxide (CO 2) and greenhouse gases (GHG) (Source). Most peatlands in the world are in a natural state, unaffected by anthropogenic drainage and other disturbances. However, these carbon-dense ecosystems (e.g. poorly drained peatland) are responsible for up to 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forest and other land-use sectors. As such, peat bogs play an important role in the global carbon cycle because they store enormous amounts of carbon.
Image 3: Global peatlands of the world map from Global Peatlands Initiative UNEP presentation
Thousands of years of peat accumulation have led to global carbon sinks in peat bogs estimated to exceed those stored by living global vegetation (source). The GPI project aims to help countries make informed decisions and develop management and policy options that minimise impacts on humans and the environment. Additionally, the overarching aim of the initiative is to prevent dangerous social and climatic tipping points associated with peat loss and destruction, such as toxic smoke from peat fires. By improving knowledge and capacity to identify and map sustainable use of peatlands, with a particular focus on the peat-rich tropical countries of Peru, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia, GPI and its partner network can act to mitigate these tipping points.
Image 4: Schematic cross-section through a typical tropical peat dome in Indonesia (WWF, 2009; modified).
Mapping the global peat and wetlands with high spatial detail and multi-source approaches to satellite, climatic and topographic data will aim to facilitate scientific engagement to validate new peat hotspots and help countries hosting peatlands to locate and prioritize their conservation management directly. Satellite data can be used to determine the extent of peat bogs, their altitude, topographic features, land use, the history of soil cover change, vegetation diversity, effects of fire disturbances and various atmospheric measurements such as smoke and air quality emissions (source). Remote-sensing methods include satellite imagery, airborne electromagnetic sensors such as lidar and radar, which combine with existing data sets and soil perception models to minimize the need for costly and time-consuming field samples to determine boundary depths in peatlands (source). Digital mapping methods can easily integrate open-source data. In combination with field observation factors known to influence the distribution of peat, accurate and scalable insights can be won to better manage peatlands as premium and permanent carbon sinks.
Image 5: Global Peatland Initiative Media from COP23
The GPI mission to improve the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of peatland in countries with significant peat deposits aligns with the mission for impact by Space4Good. The partners of the initiative work together in their respective fields to improve the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of peat bogs. The combined efforts also see notable contributions to several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) including conservation of carbon stocks in soil (SDG13), prevention of health effects of severe air pollution from the burning and reclamation of twigs (SDG3), protection of water-related ecosystems to improve water quality (SDT6), and protection of ecosystems and endangered species and protection of land life (SDG15 ). Even now as COP26 unfolds, according to the University of Birmingham, ‘peat and peatlands remain an important topic in light of climate change challenges at the heart of COP26’(source). .In joining the GPI, we look forward to applying our remote sensing experience in fire detections, land-use change and predictive modelling and strengthen our role as earth observation partner to the community.
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