Carbon Storage in Amazonian Peatlands: Distribution and Dynamics

Funding Body: NERC

Project Duration: December 2017, 3.5 years

Project Overview:

This project aims to make a step change in the precision and accuracy of our knowledge of the distribution of peatlands in the tropics, and to develop our capacity to predict and monitor future changes to the carbon storage function of these peatlands.

Tropical forest ecosystems are important for carbon storage. The densest ‘carbon hotspots’ occur where peat underlies the vegetation. Peat is an organic soil formed by the accumulation of plant litter, often over thousands of years, usually under waterlogged conditions which limit micro-organism activity and inhibit litter decomposition. Given that they store so much carbon per unit area, tropical peatlands should be priorities for conservation. Unfortunately, it is not currently known with certainty where peatlands occur. Even using satellite imagery, it is challenging to distinguish forest overlying peat from forest on dry soil. Mapping peat deposits in the field by trial and error is impractical given the large areas of remote terrain involved.

The project, a collaboration between UK universities (St Andrews, Edinburgh, Leeds), IIAP, and a network of project partners, contains empirical components (new field and lab data) which will yield insights into key processes and help to explain the pattern of peat accumulation in time and space in Amazonia. These empirical elements are then linked to modelling and remote sensing in order to address the challenge of extrapolating from individual field sites to understanding peatland carbon storage on large spatial scales.

Project Aims:

  1. To substantially develop and improve our current method for inferring the distributions of vegetation, peat and carbon from satellite data, by addressing fundamental gaps in our understanding of the controls on these distributions and by testing a set of technical improvements. We will then test how well this model works on floodplains in other parts of Amazonia.
  2. To develop our ability to predict and monitor future changes to tropical peatland carbon stocks through process-based and data-fusion modelling. As a key step towards, this, we will generate empirical datasets including the pattern of peatland carbon storage through the last several thousand years, and the rates at which litter is added to the peat and removed by decomposition today, at a range of sites with differing hydrological regimes.

Team Members:

Name Role Affiliation/Institute
Ian Lawson PI St Andrews
Katy Roucoux Co-I St Andrews
Tim Baker Co-I U Leeds
Ed Mitchard Co-I Edinburgh
Mat Williams Co-I Edinburgh
Jhon del Aguila Pasquel RA IIAP
César Córdova RA IIAP
Greta Dargie PDRA (2017-18) St Andrews
Elsa De Grandi PDRA (2018) Edinburgh
Adam Hastie PDRA Edinburgh
Christine Åkesson PDRA St Andrews (from May 2019)
Manuel Martin Brañas RA IIAP

Project Partners:                                                                                                      Dennis del Castillo Torres (IIAP)
Steve Frolking (University of New Hampshire)
Thomas Kleinen (Max-Planck-Institut für Meteorologie)
Outi Lähteenoja (Arizona State University)
Nigel Pitman (The Field Museum, Chicago)
Ethan Householder (Karlsruher Institut für Technologie)

Contact Information: Ian Lawson (