Highland bog reveals global warming threat to peatlands

Peatlands are vital to the survival of many plants. Photograph: Martin Rimmer
Peatlands are vital to the survival of many plants. Photograph: Martin Rimmer
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Rising sea levels and increased pollution linked to global warming are posing a huge threat to the future of the world’s peatland areas, new research has concluded.

Geologists based their findings on a major study of Kentra Moss, in Lochaber, a blanket bog deemed a special conservation area. They found climate change is increasing salt levels in peatlands which makes it less able to store carbon.

Peat bogs cover 3 per cent of the Earth’s surface and play a crucial role in absorbing and storing carbon from the atmosphere.

Experts say that natural ecosystems are now under “considerable threat” around the world – and significantly in Scotland, where 20 per cent of the land is covered in peat, storing 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon.

Peatlands are also vital for providing natural filters for clean water, sustaining plants and wildlife, and providing some rural areas with fuel as well as the water used to give whisky its distinctive taste and colour.

Study leader Dr Angela Gallego-Salas, senior lecturer in physical geography at Exeter University, said: “The results were startling. Peatland areas are vital for our ecosystems. We need to act now to protect our peatlands. The effects of global warming are already being observed, but the longer we wait to act, the quicker changes to our environment, which would have a devastating impact on many regions around the world, will take place.”

Her team examined the impact salt found in seawater has on how successfully peatland ecosystems accumulate carbon from the atmosphere. They discovered that the rate at which peatland areas accumulated carbon was significantly impacted as the concentration of salt rose.

The results – which appeared in the scientific journal Scientific Reports – highlighted how sea levels linked to predicted climate change pose a serious threat to the future security of peatlands.

They found the levels would be high enough to inundate areas and deposit more salt further inland. The samples showed that as salt levels increased, the vegetation that colonise the bogs altered significantly, resulting in a sharp fall in carbon storage.

Gallego-Salas added: “Scotland is a peat-rich nation. Peatlands are of great importance in terms of their ecological value, their beauty and cultural value.”

She added: “Additionally, blanket bogs – like the peatland at Kentra Bay – are globally rare, even if they are very common in Scotland, so Scotland holds a lot of the global resource of blanket bogs. The sad news is that they have been extensively drained and damaged, 70 per cent of blanket bogs and 90 per cent of raised bogs in Scotland have been damaged.”

She said peatlands are vital to wildlife, notably moorland breeding birds and plants like insect-eating sundews. Animals such as deer, eagles, mountain hares are also dependent on peatlands.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) already has a National Peatland Plan which aims to make the peatlands more sustainable and encourage restoration and management of them.

Peat soils in Scotland contain almost 25 times as much carbon as all other plant life in the UK, SNH said.