Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

In defence of bogs

Walkway over a peat bog in Finland Walkway over a peat bog in Finland Alexander Erdbeer
05 Jun
2015
Bogs - the scourge of all walkers - rarely get any friendly publicity. However, Geographical explores how the boggy plant, sphagnum moss, is wooing biologists

We’ve all tried it, hopping from one side of a little bog to the other by keeping to the protruding lumps of moss, only to find ourselves sinking knee-deep in slime. Although terrible underfoot, peat moss is one of the most reliable stores of carbon on Earth. At present, peat mosses cover ten per cent of all land in Norway and Russia and another 13 per cent of all land in Canada. In these bogs, peat sequesters as much as 550 billion tonnes of carbon.

Sphagnum species thrive in wet areas and spread across vast regions of the northern hemisphere. Empty plant cells in the living and dead plants can retain 25 times their dry weight in water, allowing the moss to spread from wet to drier land. Sponging this water together creates the bogs, where biological material can be broken down anaerobically (without oxygen). Breaking down organic material in this way keeps more carbon than it releases, storing it below ground in a layer of peat.

ForestryAreas of sphagnum bog cleared for forestry in Flow Country bog, Sunderland. (Image: RSPB)

‘No plant genus is more important as a carbon balance on Earth than peat mosses,’ says Professor Hans K. Stenøien, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum in Trondheim. ‘Peat stores at least a third of all the carbon on land.’

Unaware of the ecological value of bogs, few people have vouched for their conservation in the last few centuries. Because of this, thousands of miles of bogs and sphagnum habitat have been drained to make way for tree plantations and farmland.

Scotland’s Flow Country, the largest blanket bog in Europe, was ploughed in large areas for tree plantations during a period of high unemployment in the 1970s. Similar stories emerge from Norway, where it is estimated that around 25 per cent of peat land has been destroyed. In Canada, vast stretches of peat bogs are still threatened by oil sands development.

yukojPermafrost bogs in the Yukon, Canadian Territory (Pi-Lens)

A warmer climate might effect how much carbon is sequestered by permafrost sphagnum mosses. When permafrost melts, locked up carbon is released into the atmosphere, though how much and how quickly remains to be seen. Should it all be released, there is enough carbon in northern permafrost to exceed the amount that has been released by burning fossil fuels.

In order to gain political support for the protection of peat mosses, NTNU University Museum is collaborating with a team of international partners to understand how they interact with carbon. As well as researching the binding rate and accumulation of carbon, they will be investigating the bog restoration and drafting protection plans to conserve them for future carbon sequestration. 

Related items

Geographical Week

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

Subscribe to Geographical!

Adventure Canada

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

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    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...

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

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…

Cities

IPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference: Alberta host dresses non-renewable…

Water

Increased carbon dioxide is affecting freshwater ecosystems

Forests

The latest laser scanning technology reveals new insights into the…

Forests

Deforestation is having an unexpected effect in the Amazon: fewer…

Forests

The iconic Douglas fir tree, familiar to fans of the…

Forests

Rocky Mountain forests are not regenerating after wildfires

Cities

Cape Town is edging closer to ‘Day Zero’, the long-feared…

Water

Ongoing restoration projects are breathing new life into Florida’s Everglades

Cities

Despite protests, an experimental pedestrianisation system is proving to be…