Scientists will assess the risk that climate change poses to our peatlands, and identify the best options to protect these important ecosystems and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Peatlands store huge amounts of carbon in their natural state but are a net source of emissions due to degradation by human activity such as drainage for agriculture and forestry, burning and commercial peat extraction. Rapid climate change is increasing the likelihood of them being pushed beyond the point of recovery and releasing even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 

A new five-year, £3.7m project, involving the UK Centre for Hydrology & Ecology (UKCEH), will combine greenhouse gas emissions data from an extensive network of peatland monitoring sites with satellite observations and state-of-the-art computer models. The researchers will then produce high-quality computer simulations of how UK and European peatlands may respond to different climate change scenarios and land uses up to the end of this century. 

“This will be a game-changer in our ability to predict how carbon dense peatland ecosystems will respond to and influence climate change over the coming century,” says Dr Ross Morrison of UKCEH, who leads the work on observing greenhouse gas emissions.

The project, called MOTHERSHIP, led by the James Hutton Institute and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), will then find the best possible future management solutions for peat soils to mitigate climate change. Around 80 per cent of the UK’s peatlands have been degraded, and previous UKCEH-led research has estimated they now emit the net equivalent of around 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year – around four per cent of the country’s total terrestrial greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr Morrison says: “If we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change then we urgently need to reduce large-scale greenhouse gas emissions that are being driven by peatland degradation. The project team will therefore deliver much-needed information to guide land management and policy decisions on peatlands as we begin the transition towards a net zero world.”

Globally, peatlands store twice as much carbon as all forests; the waterlogged conditions prevent plant material from fully decomposing and ‘peat’ soil is formed by the partially decayed material, locking in carbon. The mosses and other vegetation that grow in healthy peatlands also capture CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. 

Project coordinator Dr Rebekka Artz of the James Hutton Institute explains: “ Undisturbed and rewetted peatlands have enormous potential to reduce global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over long time scales.”

MOTHERSHIP involves 23 UK and international partners contributing datasets and expertise including James Hutton, UKCEH and the Universities of Nottingham, Leeds, Exeter and the Highlands & Islands.