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Valuable peatlands at risk of disappearing

13 October 2021
Peatlands are valuable ecosystems that store water and large quantities of carbon and that support high biodiversity. However, 20 percent of the European raised bog habitat is currently under threat from climate change and dewatering.

In new research published in PNAS scientists show how peat can disappear and be created. The first author is VU Amsterdam geoscientist Ype van der Velde.

Tipping point
Forests and peatlands are inextricably linked, according to the study conducted by Van der Velde in collaboration with colleagues from Wageningen, Utrecht and other universities. These two ecosystems can exist happily side by side but as soon as they pass a certain point, critical limits are exceeded.

Then peat can turn into forest and forest can become peat. Wherever organic material accumulates, the soil becomes wetter and fewer trees grow, so the soil become even wetter, ultimately turning into peat. Conversely, desiccation causes trees to grow on peat, which gets even drier, becomes depleted and eventually disappears.

Creation or preservation of peatland
Van der Velde developed a model that shows where in Europe the conditions are right for the creation or preservation of peatland. One third of Europe has a climate that is, in principle, suited to preserving existing peatland. In contrast, the formation of new peatland is possible in only a fraction of those areas.

The new study in PNAS is important because never before have peatlands been studied so explicitly from the point of view of the landscape. The researchers argue that a landscape perspective – including interactions between peatlands, forests and rivers – is essential to understand and control the future of peatlands.