Talking peat with the public (in lockdown)!

A report from Adam Hastie, who recently took the plunge and was interviewed in a live, online forum, open to the public, about his work on mapping the Amazon’s peatlands.  Great work, Adam! 

I recently took part in an online interview and discussion about my current research with InterSci Edinburgh under the title “How understanding, mapping and protecting peat can help to limit climate change”. InterSci is an organisation led by postgraduate students at Edinburgh University with the aim of encouraging conversations about science and technology. The discussion began with me giving an introduction to my research and a general explanation of what tropical peatlands are and why they are an important component of the global carbon cycle. The host Agamemnon (no, thankfully not the ferocious king of ancient Mycenae!) then asked me a series of questions, including several tricky ones from the public! This was the first time I had given a talk freely open to the public and without any slides, so it was a new and interesting challenge. I definitely had to keep on my toes and think carefully about each answer, trying to make sure I explained things in an accessible and hopefully interesting way! InterSci are always looking for new speakers so I would encourage all of you wetland scientists out there to get involved!

The video can be viewed here:

Historical and future contributions of inland waters to the Congo basin carbon balance

Adam Hastie provides a brief summary of the paper him and his colleagues team are awaiting publication of.

Adam Hastie et al.- Currently under review in Earth System Dynamics

License- Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License

As part of my PhD at the Université Libre de Bruxelles under Pierre Regnier, I used the ORCHILEAK land surface model to investigate the transfer of carbon (C) from land (vegetation and soils) to inland waters in the Congo basin. We show that around 4% of terrestrial net primary (NPP) productivity is transferred laterally to inland waters each year.  While the model does not yet explicitly include peatland processes, we find that the Cuvette Centrale wetland is a hotspot of C exchange between the terrestrial and aquatic environments (Fig. 1). Moreover, we show that transfer of C to inland waters, CO2 evasion from the water surface, and the export of C to the coast have all increased since 1861, and predict that these trends will continue throughout the 21st century under RCP 6.0, driven by rising atmospheric CO2 and climate change. Our findings call for long-term monitoring of the C fluxes and stocks of the Congo basin and the inclusion of tropical peatlands within land surface models.

Figure 1: Present day (1981-2010) spatial distribution of a) terrestrial net primary productivity (NPP), b) dissolved organic carbon leaching from soils into the aquatic system (DOCinp), c) CO2 leaching from soils into the aquatic system (CO2inp) and d) aquatic CO2 evasion (FCO2). Main rivers in blue. All at a resolution of 1°.

Modelling (peat accumulation) in the USA

A short report from a recent trip Adam Hastie made to learn from colleagues at the University of New Hampshire, USA.

I recently went to visit Steve Frolking and Claire Treat at the University of New Hampshire (Durham) to learn how to use the HPMTrop model (Kurnianto et al., 2015). HPMTrop is a 1D model driven by water table variation, which simulates mass remaining in annual peat cohorts as a balance between vegetation inputs and decomposition. In other words, it creates a peat core profile and predicts how much of the accumulated peat is derived from leaves, wood and roots respectively (Fig. 1 left). I am using our field data from litter fall and decomposition bags (Fig. 1 right) in the Pastaza-Marañon foreland basin (PMFB) in Peru to parametrize the model to local conditions, so that we can investigate the hydrological and productivity limits to peat accumulation. The great thing about HPMTrop is that you can run it in a matter of minutes, and so can quickly see what effect changing this or that parameter has on rates of litter production and decomposition.

Fig. 1. Left- cohort mass from leaves, woods and roots by age as simulated by HPMTrop. Right-% mass of stem, root and leaf material at two field sites in the Pastaza-Marañon foreland basin in Peru; Nueva York 3 (NYO_03) and Veinte de Enero 2 (VEN_02). Data: Cesar Cordova, Jhon del Aguila Pasquel, Greta Dargie

I also had a great time with Steve (and his lovely family) and Clare in beautiful New Hampshire! I was very well looked after being taken out to micro-breweries, Asian fusion restaurants and a local Irish (with a little “Loch Lomond” thrown in!) music night a few of the highlights. I also visited a picturesque coastal town called Kittery where I met the local whale (see photo below) but sadly the town’s name was a blatant case of false advertising, I didn’t see one kitten!

Adam, posing with the local whale of Kittery!

Report from the latest gathering of the UK TPWGroup

Here is a short report on the latest meeting of the UK TPWG, written by Lydia Cole. (This post was first posted here on the UK TPWG website.)

On 30th January, Prof Sue Page and Dr Sara Thornton hosted a meeting of the UK Tropical Peatland Working Group (UK TPWG).  An assortment of researchers gathered for one day at the University of Leicester, to present their work and discuss how the group can be more effective in the realm of tropical peatland science and responsible management.  Attendees successfully navigated the UK rail network from as far as Exeter on the south coast to St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland.  The most junior member of the group had a baptism of fire as the meeting marked the first day of his PhD – well done, Abdul!


Donna Hawthorne presenting on her palaeoecological component of the mega-CongoPeat project. (Credit: Lydia Cole.)

The day started with brief introductions from everyone present, with expertise ranging from palaeoecology to political economy, with a number of biogeochemists and modellers in the mix.  Fifteen people gave a summary of their current work in a short presentation.  The Congo Basin team started the proceedings with a lowdown on the state of knowledge on contemporary greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from these Central African peatlands (Nick Girkin), on their development history (Donna Hawthorne) and past and present spatial patterning (George Biddulph).  The distribution of carbon across Mexico’s wetlands was then showcased (Sofie Sjogersten), followed by insights into the emissions resulting from agriculturally important (and very deep!) peatlands in Uganda (Jenny Farmer).  Several presenters gave reports on the exciting new projects they are just embarking on, e.g. TroPeaCC (Angela Gallego-Sala), or the first findings gathered after recently returning from field campaigns, e.g. the Peru peatlands crew (Anna Macphie, Adam Hastie, Charlotte Wheeler and Lydia Cole).  Katy Roucoux gave a neat overview of the multiple different projects happening in the peatlands of the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin in the Peruvian Amazon, showing a diversity of studies ranging from the modelling of carbon to the mapping of livelihoods, and a variety of palaeo- and neo-ecological studies.  The pantropical circle continued on to Southeast Asia’s peatlands, where we learnt about the importance of peatland fish for rural livelihoods, biodiversity conservation and much more (Sara Thornton); about exciting, and horrifying new measurements of the GHG emissions during the initial years of oil palm plantation establishment on Sarawakian peatlands (Jon McCalmont) and the pattern of biomass accumulation of these palms on organic-rich soils (Kennedy Lewis); finishing with a round-up of potential ways of reducing GHG emissions from peatland agriculture (Yit Arn Teh), such as wise use of fertilisers.

Woman laying out fish to dry, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Sara Thornton

Sara Thornton told of the importance of fishing for rural communities living in peatland areas in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.  (Credit: Sara Thornton.)

An engaged discussion followed each set of talks, resulting in as many unanswered questions as those we felt able to provide reasoned responses to.  Thus the UK TPWG, along with an extensive body of invaluable collaborators across the Tropics, is tasked with finding answers to these important knowledge gaps we identified (and the funding to match!).  Which wetland ecosystems of the Peruvian Amazon are peat-forming and why?  Where is the labile carbon from the peatlands of the Congo Basin disappearing to?  How can we reduce the impact of cultivating Uganda’s peatlands? And crucially, how do we work across disciplines, perhaps even interdisciplinarily, to tackle the complex challenge of tropical peatland conservation and restoration?


Jon McCalmont thanking the many people involved in his project in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. (Credit: Lydia Cole.)

If you have answers, questions or are interested in engaging with the group, please get in touch –

Sucked in (to the swamps)

Lydia Cole describes her recent experiences of ‘walking’ through/being sucked into the peat swamps of the western Amazon.

A colleague, being sucked in.  (She is entering a type of palm swamp dominated by Mauritia flexuosa, locally known as an aguajál and important for the fruit that can be harvested there.)

At the end of June, I got back from two months of fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon.  The swamps, the Amazon, Peru, and indeed South America, were all new to me, having spent most of my research career to date searching for remnants of intact peatlands in Southeast Asia.

In the Pastaza-Maranon Foreland Basin (PMFB), a large area of the lowland Amazon within the Department of Loreto, Peru, you’re pushed to find any land that isn’t swampy to walk on.  Mapping projects to date have estimated the peatlands of the PMFB to cover 100,000km2.  One of the reasons I was there, along with six colleagues (from the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Manchester) and a bunch of exceptional assistants, was to help improve the accuracy of this estimate.  We each had slightly different data gathering agendas, but overall were trying to find out more about the evolution, ecology, condition and value of these peatlands, both from a local and global perspective.

Washing clothes in Veinte de Enero, on the banks of the Yanayacu river, on one of the many fine evenings after coming back from a sweaty day in the swamps.

My focus, along with that of Luis Andueza (fellow St Andrean) and Charlotte Wheeler (Edinburgh), was to investigate how people value the wetland ecosystems of the PMFB.  Luis formed a key part of the social science team, made up of a great bunch of co-investigators and assistants from the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana (IIAP).  They spent many hours asking many questions of the members of three communities, Veinte de Enero, Nueva Union and Nueva Pandora, living on the banks of the Yanayacu, Chambira and Tigrillo rivers, respectively.  They, incidentally, drank a variety of liquids during the interviews, to facilitate their social integration with the communities!

The ecological crew I was with, busy measuring what we measure in a plot. Spot the agile one up the tree. Never have I seen such heights scaled so quickly, and with such ease! (I might need to adapt the Risk Assessment for the next trip, however.)

Concurrently, Charlotte and myself, led by our brilliant botanist, Nállarett, and two courageous Field Assistants, Julio S and Julio I, were out exploring the many ecosystems that surrounded these communities.  Our work was, in essence, a big treasure hunt.  Our mission (that I questioned why I’d chosen to accept at various points of inundation!) was to find the gold – the code-word for peat.  We ventured into the environment surrounding the three communities in order to “ground-truth” information of two sorts: (i) ecosystem types/resource extraction locations marked on participatory maps generated by the communities in workshops run by the social science team, and (ii) maps generated through remote sensing (using Landsat imagery) that depict changes in land cover, with the different ‘covers’ yet to be confidently identified or understood from an ecological perspective.  We spent approximately 20 days cutting our way through swampy forests of all shapes and sizes.  When we came across a new ecosystem type, and felt that we could work at that location for two hours without sinking, we gathered data on various above- and below-ground characteristics.  One of the most challenging plots was half a meter under water, at a location aptly named “31 Devils”.  Thankfully, I’ve had previous experience of snorkelling in bogs.

Now that we’re all back on solid ground, we’re starting to explore all of the ecological and interview data collected from the swamps, to try to understand how people use, and importantly, how they value the wetlands ecosystems of the PMFB, as well as understanding the physical characteristics of these ecosystems from a western scientific perspective.  Our initial findings suggest that there are a whole range of forested wetlands used by these communities, composed of a huge diversity of flora on both peat and non-peatlands, and on a confusing mix of peaty-lands in between.  And, not unsurprisingly, people tend to avoid the deeper, looser, more “sucking”, mosquito-ridden swamps, when and where they can!  Sensible folk.  But we still have much to learn about the nuances of how each community values these carbon-rich, biodiverse and beautiful ecosystems.

Some of the great team, fresh-faced and smiling at the start of our fieldwork campaign!  (One member of the team may have been carried over the swamps in some parts.  Many other members of the team wished someone would carry them over the swamps in all parts.)