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Peatland canals are hidden hotspots for carbon emissions

Deep beneath our feet lie vast landscapes called peatlands. These swampy areas store massive amounts of carbon, acting like natural carbon banks. However, a surprising new study reveals that canals dug to drain peatlands are a major contributor to climate change.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have discovered that these seemingly harmless peatland canals act as hidden hotspots for carbon emissions. This discovery emphasizes the need to re-evaluate the impact of draining peatlands.

Peatland canals boost climate change

Peatlands form in areas with constant flooding. Dead plants don’t fully decompose due to limited oxygen, accumulating over centuries as peat soil. These unique ecosystems have thrived undisturbed for millennia.

However, as a result of relentless agricultural expansion, particularly in places like West Kalimantan, Indonesia, peatlands are increasingly drained and destroyed. The findings of the research reveal hidden threats associated with the drainage use of peatland canals.

Around one-third of organic carbon leaking from peatland into canals quickly turns into harmful carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

“These are some of the largest stores of carbon in the world outside of the ocean and they’ve been locked up for thousands of years. Reintroducing any of that carbon into the atmosphere is of major concern when it comes to climate change,” said study co-author Dr. Lihini Aluwihare.

This is because, when peatlands are drained via canals, air reaches the previously waterlogged soil. This exposure to oxygen jumpstarts the decomposition of the vast amount of dead plant matter stored in the peat. The breakdown process releases carbon dioxide directly into the atmosphere.

Carbon emissions by peatland canals 

The research team successfully determined the exact rate at which microbes and sunlight convert peatland carbon into carbon dioxide within peatland canals. Their findings emphasize how brighter days, greater oxygen availability, and intensified water movement significantly increase this process.

Shockingly, each square meter of a peatland canal network in these areas releases roughly 70 milligrams of carbon dioxide daily. This translates to around 35% of the dissolved peatland carbon escaping back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, this rate is considerably higher than previous estimates.

Peatland canals affect oceans

The study reveals a critical gap in our understanding of how peatland degradation contributes to climate change. Additionally, scientists are unsure about how carbon travels through water from drained peatlands, to canals, and ultimately to the oceans.

Carbon emissions from peatland canals hinder ocean’s ability to absorb and permanently store this carbon (a process known as sequestration). So, the study implies that draining peatlands for agriculture releases carbon not only into the air, but also substantially into water systems.

Alternatives to peatland canals

Peatland canal alternatives could focus on sustainable management practices that protect the ecological integrity of peatlands. Here are some alternatives and strategies:

Wetland restoration

Bringing peatlands back to their natural waterlogged state is key. This involves blocking drainage canals using dams or structures to raise the water table and re-wet the peatland, halting carbon emissions and reviving biodiversity.


This innovative approach focuses on cultivating crops suited to wet peatlands, eliminating the need for drainage. Farmers can grow crops like reeds for biofuel, specific berries, and even peat moss substitutes while preserving the peatland’s carbon storage capacity.

Water level management

Maintaining a balanced water level is crucial. Advanced systems can be implemented to prevent peat from drying and oxidizing while still allowing for some controlled land use. This requires close monitoring and adjustments to ensure peatland health.

Sustainable forestry

Selective forestry that respects the water balance is essential. Choosing species that thrive in wet conditions and don’t require significant water table reduction minimizes the impact on carbon storage and the overall peatland ecosystem.

Regulation and monitoring

Stricter regulations could curb new drainage activities and ensure compliance with conservation goals. Robust monitoring systems are vital to track progress and identify areas requiring intervention.

Community involvement

Engaging local communities in conservation efforts is key. Providing alternative income sources like eco-tourism, sustainable fishing, or income from paludiculture products incentivizes peatland preservation and fosters a sense of shared responsibility.

Study significance

Researchers worldwide have made significant contributions to the study. Scientists like Putri Juliandini Wahyudio, Gusti Anshari, and Alison Hoyt have shed light on the complex interplay between land use, water quality, and climate change. The work provides valuable knowledge for managing and protecting these crucial carbon stores.

Overall, a new wave of thinking has emerged that sees peatlands as vital ecosystems regulating the climate. This study not only broadens our knowledge of carbon movement but also urges us to reconsider land-use practices that endanger these vital carbon sinks.

The study was published in the journal Nature Geoscience.


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