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Carbon-Rich Peat Is Disappearing. But Is It Also Growing?

Thank peat for that scotchy flavor of Scotch whisky: The muck forms in Scotland’s bogs, when layer after layer of dead vegetation resists decay and compresses into fuel, which is burned during scotch distillation. But you can also thank peat for helping keep our planet relatively cool, as all that muck—which is particularly common across the Arctic—traps a tremendous amount of carbon that would otherwise heat the atmosphere. That peat is in serious trouble, and not because the world is drinking too much Scotch. As the Arctic warms, peat is drying out and igniting thanks to lightning strikes. These become some of the strangest wildfires on Earth , because they can smolder through the ground, moving slowly across the landscape until they pop up somewhere else—earning them the nickname “zombie fires .” Peat fires will even “overwinter,” burning under the snow and igniting new fires aboveground in the spring. These blazes can burn for months and release astonishing amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

At the same time, the Arctic is greening , which might sound great, but it’s actually a slow-motion nightmare for the region’s ability to keep carbon sequestered. Like peat, permafrost—a combination of earth and ice—is a carbon sink. Yet the Arctic is warming up to four times as fast as the rest of the planet, making permafrost thaw so rapidly that it’s gouging holes across the landscape , releasing carbon. A greener landscape accelerates that thaw, because as shrubs become a more dominant form of vegetation, they trap more snow against the ground. This prevents the winter chill from reaching permafrost, meaning it thaws more readily.

Scientists, though, just discovered that there might be a small ray of hope as the Arctic greens. All of that plant growth may be building new peat, potentially offsetting at least some of the losses of carbon from peat fires and permafrost thaw. Working in the Svalbard archipelago in Norway, researchers took sediment cores, which you can see in the image below. The grayer, darker bits are mineral soils, but the greener, browner bits are layers of organic material, mostly moss. “The layers are still so young, so it's not fully mature peat yet, but perhaps it will become peat eventually,” says University of Helsinki paleoecologist Minna Väliranta, lead author of a paper describing the findings, which published in the journal Scientific Reports in March. “That's why we call it ‘proto-peat,’ because it's not peat yet, in a kind of proper sense.”

Photograph: Sanna Piilo

That’s because peat takes a very long time to form. First and foremost, peat needs to stay wet, which preserves the plant matter and stops it from rotting away. As new vegetation grows and then dies on top of this material, it also resists decay. Layer after layer forms over centuries or even thousands of years. (Peat also regularly forms in tropical regions, which are nice and wet.)