Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Mapping the world’s largest tropical peatland

Mapping the world’s largest tropical peatland Fraser et al
20 Feb
2017
The world’s largest tropical peatland carbon store has been mapped for the first time and it is 16 times bigger than expected

Researchers at the University of Leeds and the University of London have realised the full extent of the Cuvette Centrale, a remote peatland in the Congo basin. Unknown to science five years ago, the peat soils have been found to take up 145,500 square kilometres – larger than the size of England – making it the largest peatland under tropical forest in the world.

According to the report, the soils have locked in 30 billion tonnes of carbon, about 20 years’ worth of the fossil fuel emissions of the United States (or three years’ worth of the entire planet’s). Overall, the area is thought to account for 30 per cent of the carbon stored in tropical peatlands. ‘Although it covers only four per cent of the whole Congo Basin, it can store the same amount of carbon below ground as that stored above ground in the trees covering the other 96 per cent,’ says Professor Simon Lewis, co-author of the study.

peatMap detailing the size and spread of the Cuvette Centrale peatlands (Image: Lewis et al)

The area was mapped using satellite data. Though satellites cannot tell you much about the soil under the land, they can observe the types of plants on top of it. The team found through measurements in the field that only two specific types of forests grow over peatland. By looking for those types of vegetation in the satellite data, the researchers were able to determine the surface area. By collecting core samples of the soil , they were then able to calculate the peatland’s depth as well as its carbon storing capacity.

Though they only cover around three per cent of the Earth’s surface, peatlands store between one third and half of all the carbon absorbed by soils. Usually found in cold, damp regions such as Russia, Canada and northern Europe, their overlying plants absorb CO2 through the air, which then becomes locked in as they decompose. It is thought that the Cuvette Centrale began storing its load 11,000 years ago.

2764Part of a carbon core sample (Image: Lewis et al)

While healthy peatlands are a sink of carbon, disturbed or damaged peat can become a source. In Indonesia, for example, draining, drying and, in some cases, setting fire to the soil has resulted in large injections of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. ‘With so many of the world’s tropical peatlands under threat from land development and the need to reduce carbon emissions to zero over the coming decades, it is essential that the Congo Basin peatlands remain intact,’ says Lewis.

Being remote, the Cuvette Centrale area is relatively undisturbed. However, it does not yet come under any formal agreement for conservation.

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!

University of Winchester

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...

Deserts

An evening discussing Oman’s hidden conservation heritage. Fifty Geographical readers…

Deserts

Biosphere 2 was one of the most ambitious experiments in…

Forests

High-quality, affordable drones can revolutionise the way that landscape and…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig charts the impact of volcanoes on nearby human…

Mapping

A volunteer-led digital mapping project is at the heart of…

Cities

As the planet urbanises, attention is turning towards the most…

Forests

Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many…

Cities

A rising number of cruise ships and their ‘overlooked’ diesel…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig charts the growth and impact of the world’s…

Deserts

Long-term studies reveal the Sahara desert has expanded substantially over…

Water

South America’s wealthiest economy is at a crossroads between environmental…

Forests

The European Court of Justice finds the logging of a…

Mountains

In this extract from his new book, Tides, mountain climber…

Cities

New data from the World Health Organization reveals that nine…

Water

In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan,…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig maps out the global production and distribution levels…

Water

Millions of Americans are living in areas at high-risk of…

Mapping

New interactive maps combine precipitation and temperature to show climate…

Cities

Public transport in India could be on the verge of…

Water

To retrace the route of the fur voyageurs on the waterways…