June 4, 2014

Discovery of a massive African peat bog: A new resource for understanding climate

by Eric Dillalogue

In April, while exploring uncharted regions of western central Africa, a team of scientists came across an incredibly large yet unknown peat bog in an area called the Congo Basin.  Stretching across the Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville, the bog formed over thousands of years and now spans an area of between 40,000 to 80,000 square miles, roughly the size of England.  This discovery reminds us how incredibly large and diverse the Earth is and how much of our planet is still largely unknown.  A bog in the tropical zone is also a rare occurrence since most of these wetlands form in colder northern environments.

 

Peat bog in Congo-Brazzaville

Congo Basin peat bog core sample (Courtesy of Simon Lewis)

 

However, the true importance of the Congo Basin bog discovery is that scientists now have an undisturbed record of thousands of years of climate information in the peat, an organic material consisting of partially decayed plants that naturally stores large amounts of carbon.  By studying the peat scientists will gain additional insight into how the Earth has warmed or cooled throughout history and may be better able to understand current climate change.

 

The thick layer of carbon-rich peat extends up to 7m beneath the ground in the Congo bog. (Courtesy of Simon Lewis / CBBC)

 

Through retrieving peat cores and examining the vegetation and small organisms preserved there, scientists can reconstruct warming and cooling periods for thousands of years.  The peat is an environmental historical record that builds up layer by layer, similar to ice cores taken in the arctic.  Things like pollen grains or unicellular amoebas can be connected to known environmental preferences and, by their location in the core layers, can be associated with definite time periods.  For example, since scientists can determine which plants thrive in a warmer or cooler environment, the pollen provides information about Earth’s climate for many thousands of years.  Though there are no printed climate records from 10,000 years ago, the pollen and amoebas trapped in the peat provide an indication of what the conditions were like.

Since it contains billions of tons of peat, the Congo Basin bog is also huge store of carbon, an important element that affects the climate.  Dr. Simon Lewis, a member of the scientific team that announced the Congo Basin bog find, notes that:

Peatlands, generally, have been a big carbon sink over the past 10,000 years. They have been taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it as peat for the long term.

And what we’ve found in central Africa is another one of those areas, so it adds a little piece to that jigsaw puzzle of where all the carbon goes in the atmosphere, where the sources are and where the sinks are, particularly in the pre-industrial era.

In fact, bogs can absorb and store up to 10 times more carbon than any other ecosystem.  This means that bogs throughout the world keep large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere. When bogs are disturbed or destroyed, though, the carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, an important contributor to global warming.  (You can learn more about carbon and its relationship to the Earth’s atmosphere in the Visionlearning module The Carbon Cycle.)

This newly discovered bog in the Congo Basin is largely undisturbed, owing to its remote location that is mostly a wildlife preserve.  However, bogs across the globe are disappearing; in increasing numbers they have been drained for use as farmland or harvested for peat as fuel.  For example, it is estimated that 45% of the bogs in Britain have been damaged, resulting in the release of carbon dioxide that equals nearly half of that emitted by all transportation in the UK.  But awareness of the importance of bogs is increasing globally.  Initiatives like the Irish Peatland Conservation Council seek to stem the destruction of bogs by highlighting their importance to the ecosystem and global climate.  There are also researchers seeking to boost the carbon storing properties of bogs to increase the amount of carbon dioxide stored there.

 

LEARN MORE

Watch a video of the scientists exploring the Republic of Congo’s immense bog.

Listen to an interview with Dr. Simon Lewis discussing the importance of the Congo Basin’s bog.

Discover more of the unique biodiversity and rich environments of the Congo Basin area though the Congo Basin Forest Partnership.

Eric Dillalogue

Written by

Eric Dillalogue holds a MS in Library and Information Science and a BA in English. He has worked in a variety of roles from service industry management, academic libraries, and grant administration. He has taught courses on information literacy, web research, and developmental reading. Eric joined the Visionlearning team as a project manager in 2014.