Peatlands and climate change: what do we really know?


The UK’s peatlands store an astonishing 4,500 million tonnes of carbon (that’s 100 times more than all UK vegetation Carbon flows and fates within peatlands. We know that damaged peatlands (top left) are a net source of carbon compared to pristine peatlands acting as a carbon sink. But how much impact does peatland type and management have on these processes?combined), and they play a vital role as both sinks and sources of the ‘greenhouse gases’ which drive climate change. So if we maintain our peatlands and wherever possible restore their ability to take in carbon dioxide and store it  locked up in plant remains – the focus of much conservation work in the UK and internationally – surely we must be helping in the battle against global warming?


But there are lots of things we don’t know:

  • How does the type of peatland – such as lowland fens, blanket bogs and upland moorland – and its management affect the flows of greenhouse gases and carbon? How much evidence do we have from site monitoring, experiments and other studies for these influences?  
  • Restoring degraded peatland habitats - to mitigate impacts of activities such as drainage, burning and footpath erosion  - can reduce carbon losses and even increase the ability of a peatland to store carbon.  However, how much does restoration increase emissions of both methane and nitrous oxide, which are much more effective ‘greenhouse gases’ than carbon dioxide? 
  • How much carbon is lost through streams and other water movement? How much of any loss is to the atmosphere - where it may contribute to climate change – rather than being stored in sediment elsewhere?


All this information is crucial for anyone managing or restoring peatlands, as well as in providing evidence for international commitments on how the UK is tackling climate change through land use management.


To address these questions, JNCC is leading a consortium of government bodies – including Defra, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Forestry Commission, Natural England, the Countryside Council for Wales, and Scottish Natural Heritage – in a research project to find out how much evidence we have on the impact of different peatland types and management on greenhouse gas and carbon flux. After conducting a review, which will bring together the results of recent appraisals with information from other research and unpublished studies, the research will put forward a design for a            co-ordinated programme to fill any gaps in our evidence, building on existing monitoring networks wherever possible.


A consortium of researchers - led by the University of Durham, and involving the Universities of Leeds and Aberdeen, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Macaulay Institute – won the tender to carry out this work in February 2010. The evidence review and research design will be presented as a business case to support the implementation of this research programme during a second phase.


Contact File


Mark Crick

Senior Surveillance and Habitats Adviser

Tel: +44 (0)1733 866867

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