Peatlands worldwide store vast quantities of carbon. Credit: Angela Gallego-Sala

Major research effort to save future of European peatlands

A five-year, £3.7m research project involving scientists from the UK and across Europe will assess the risk that climate change poses to peatlands, and improve methods of managing these important ecosystems.

Peatlands store huge amounts of carbon in their natural state, but due to human activity they are now a net source of greenhouse gases.

Rapid climate change is hampering efforts to restore peatlands, increasing the likelihood of them being pushed beyond the point of recovery and releasing even more carbon into the atmosphere.

A consortium led by the James Hutton Institute will combine expertise from the UK Centre for Hydrology & Ecology and the Universities of Nottingham, Leeds, Exeter and the Highlands and Islands to analyse and predict how UK and European peatlands will react to climate change under current land uses.

Through the development of new peatland models, the consortium will also identify the best management options to reduce peatland greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Dr Rebekka Artz, senior scientist at the James Hutton Institute and project coordinator, said: "Undisturbed and rewetted peatlands have enormous potential to reduce global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over long timescales.

"This project will create the densest network of ground observations of greenhouse gas emissions and their drivers on peatlands, while simultaneously developing models that will enable us to simulate the future state of peatlands under potential climate change and management scenarios to 2100.

"This will in turn provide support for policymakers so that they can make better policy decisions for the sustainable management of peatlands."

Dr Sarah Chadburn, from the University of Exeter, said: "I'm delighted to work with such a great team to tackle a really pressing question – where best to focus efforts in peatland restoration and conservation in terms of the benefits for carbon storage."

Exeter researchers will be developing the modelling capability of the UK land surface model, called JULES.

Professor Angela Gallego-Sala, of Exeter's Global Systems Institute, said: “It is exciting for us to be part of the effort to include these important ecosystems in JULES, which does not yet include temperate peatlands.

"This will help ensure the UK can hit the targets set out in the Paris Agreement."

The research team will also run a series of international workshops to evaluate models that forecast climate change effects on peatlands globally and find the best possible future management solutions for peat soils to mitigate climate change.

The project is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and also involves 23 UK and international project partners contributing vital datasets and expertise.

Date: 4 April 2022

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