Unexpected Congo Peat Lands the Biggest in the Tropics

Think peat and you might picture Ireland, where vast tracts of the stuff were systematically dug up over hundreds if not thousands of years, leaving huge black scars marring the landscape. Or you might find yourself picturing a garden centre with stacks of peat-based potting compost. It's unlikely the Congo Basin would spring to mind, but a vast peatland in the Congo Basin has just been mapped for the first time, and it turns out it's the biggest in the tropics.

Stashing 30 billion tonnes of carbon safely

It's called the Cuvette Centrale peatlands, it's located in the central Congo Basin, and as little as five years ago nobody had a clue it existed. But it covers a whopping 145,500 square kilometres, a chunk of land bigger than England. Importantly, this huge tract of land sucks up and locks in an awesome 30 billion tonnes of carbon, and it's one of the richest carbon ecosystems on the planet, stashing an amount the same as three years' worth of the planet's total fossil fuel emissions.

Understanding what makes the peatlands tick

Professor Simon Lewis and Dr Greta Dargie, from University of Leeds and University College London, discovered the peatlands on a 2012 field trip to the region. They contain almost a third of the world's tropical peatland carbon, equalling around two decades' worth of fossil fuel emissions given off in the USA, and the resulting peatland map created by the team marks an important first step in understanding exactly what makes this remarkable ecosystem tick.

A vital resource in the fight against climate change

Peat is made from partly-rotted down plants, and it tends to be made in cooler areas of the world. Peat acts as a powerful carbon sink, sucking carbon out of the atmosphere via plant growth. Because it's waterlogged, the plant matter doesn't completely decompose, locking carbon in. If peatlands dry out, the decomposition process kicks off again and CO2 gets released back into the atmosphere. As you can imagine, intact peatlands are a vital resource in the fight against climate change, and it's important to maintain them.

An urgent need to consider peatlands in conservation plans

Carbon has been steadily building up in the Congo Basin's peatlands for almost eleven thousand years. Destroy it and billions of tonnes of CO2 would be released into the earth's atmosphere. The Congolese peatlands are such a new discovery they aren't taken into account in conservation plans, which puts them at serious risk.


Guest post by The Rainforest Foundation.

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