Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Trees, deservedly, get lots of credit for recycling carbon dioxide into oxygen for us to breathe. So as more of the world’s forests are destroyed, it makes you wonder: What’s going to absorb CO2 in their place?! In an ironic twist of fate, one of Earth’s “deadest” habitats might be our best hope for an ongoing supply of breathable air. Bogs. Swamps. Fens. Called peatlands, these wetland environments are named for their tendency to accumulate decayed plant matter. Unlike most other ecosystems, like forests, where branches and leaves typically decompose in a matter of months... in peatlands, that plant material can stay intact for millennia. You see, peatlands mostly exist in high altitude places where temps are low and there’s not much water flow. This results in their having extremely low oxygen and high acidity levels. These harsh conditions aren’t very hospitable to microbes and fungi, which are instrumental to the whole decomposition process. So without them around, the plant material sort of... just sits. Over time, that it globs together to form peat, a thick, spongy material that can soak up 20x its weight in water. Peat also soaks up loads of carbon. Through a process known as the Calvin cycle, living plants absorb CO2 from the air and convert it into organic molecules that they can then use as energy to grow. Through decomposition, the carbon that’s “fixed” in a plant’s structure gets released; but since peat doesn’t decompose, that carbon can stay put! It’s estimated that peatlands contain 550 gigatonnes of organic carbon, which is twice as much organic carbon as all the world’s forests combined. That’s absolutely wild, considering that forests cover about 30% of the world’s land area… and peatlands only account for 3%! Like most of the world’s habitats, peatlands aren’t immune to the threats of human development and exploitation. Peat is also are a very in-demand resource. Its incredible water holding capacity makes it a favorite amongst horticulturists; If you’ve ever picked up a bag of soil amendment, chances are it’s full of the stuff. Since peat is also a fossil fuel with a long burn, it's used in some parts of the world. Peatlands are also often drained to accommodate other land use activities, like agriculture. Since the 70s, we’ve lost over one-third of the world’s peatlands. This poses a fair number of problems, as a lower water table can cause the land to sink, increasing the risk of flooding. And since peatlands tend to absorb heavy metals and contaminants, if they’re drained, those toxins get released into the air. I mean, imagine how many thousands of years worth of stuff is locked away! The many mammals, migratory birds, amphibians, and insects that rely on peatlands for habitat and food are displaced. And what’s more, dried-out peatlands are more vulnerable to fires — which until recently, were extremely rare. Because peatlands are so carbon-rich, fires burn with such intensity that they can be near-impossible to put out. These so-called “zombie fires” can persist underground even in the dead of winter! And when peatlands burn, guess where all that carbon is going: back into the atmosphere. Annually, CO2 emissions from damaged and drained peatlands total roughly 2 gigatons. And as the climate continues to warm, this number is only expected to climb. But work to restore peatlands to their full carbon-storing potential is underway. In 2016, the UN launched the Global Peatlands Initiative to mobilize governments to restore these vulnerable ecosystems. And in some parts of the world — like in Scotland — efforts are really paying off. Restoration of 25,000 hectares is already in motion and the govt’ has pledged to fund work on another 250,000 hectares by 2030. This work often involves covering parts of exposed peatland, slowing the flow of water, and reducing drainage... but can also involve revegetation, particularly if the land was burned, and changing existing zoning laws to prevent cultivation. Given their massive potential to lock away carbon, making the protection and restoration of the world's peatlands a high priority — right up there with reforestation — makes sense. Because as we scramble to reckon with the climate crisis, making use of ALL of the solutions out there, rather than focusing on a flashy few — will be our best bet for wading through the bog. Peat bogs aren’t just able to store carbon for millennia — they’re pretty good at storing the remains of people too! These “bog bodies” look like mummies and can provide archaeologists with clues as to how people lived in the past. Some bodies are so well intact that they can have their fingerprints taken! Pretty creepy, right? Make sure to hit that subscribe button for all your climate news, and thanks so much for watching Seeker. I’ll see you next time!