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Peatlands are Threatened by Climate Change and Nitrogen Pollution

Peatlands are the world’s largest soil carbon pool, support a unique biological community, and provide important ecological, economic and protective functions, such as groundwater recharge and pollutant removal. Maintaining these critical functions depends upon protecting the integrity of the whole ecosystem. Peat cutting, drainage, and land conversion are all clear threats to peatlands. But peatlands are also highly vulnerable to ‘unseen’ threats such as changes in precipitation, temperature, and nutrients.

The projected change in the climate of many northern peat-forming regions toward warmer air temperatures, drier summers and more frequent droughts, are exactly those that have been shown to cause peatlands to degrade and begin to lose, through erosion, decomposition, or fire, the carbon that they have been accumulating for hundreds or thousands of years. Peatlands are also highly sensitive to air pollution, particularly nitrogen deposition. Reactive nitrogen from fossil fuel combustion or intensive agriculture can contaminate rain and snow, causing soil acidification, nutrient enrichment, and a decline in species that are sensitive to these conditions. Even the ‘average’ levels of these pollutants in a typical rural countryside have been shown, over the long term, to lead to a significant decline in biodiversity. Finally, there is good evidence that the combined impact of elevated nitrogen deposition and a warming climate could exceed the sum of the individual stressors and lead to a dramatic decline in the biodiversity of mosses, sensitive vascular plants, and microbes, potentially leading to catastrophic peat loss.

The PEATBOG project investigates the impact of nitrogen pollution and climate change on the health of peatlands. The project is funded by the European Research Association BiodivERsA programme and will run from spring 2009 through to the end of 2012.

Our seven partners are from the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Sweden.

Click image below for an animation of the 59 PEATBOG Cross-European survey sites. For more information see Work Package 1.