Peatlands: the need to protect these unique wetlands to help mitigate the climate crisis

These ecosystems constitute true “sponges” that store water and carbon, even the peat bogs originated after the logging or burning of forests. Despite their relevance, they have not been sufficiently protected from the overexploitation of mosses or the presence of cattle, while a study reaffirms that their conservation is key to absorbing more CO2.

It was at the northern end of the Isla Grande de Chiloé, in the Lake District, where a forest was devastated by an accident whose causes remain a mystery. According to some testimonies, it happened more than 100 years ago, probably being a forest fire that abruptly modified the landscape.

Since then, the biodiversity of the area began to recover gradually, later becoming 16 hectares of a peat bog, a rare type of wetland in Chile, where the soils are flooded by abundant rainfall and lack of drainage, being colonized by different species of mosses, often belonging to the genus Sphagnum.

A couple of decades ago, a part of this anthropogenic bog - named for having been born from a human disturbance - was under the protection of Senda Darwin Foundation, in a private protected area where research is being carried out, while the other portion remained in a neighboring farm, destined for grazing and extracting moss. This motivated a group of scientists to study how the difference in uses in the same place influences the carbon cycle, an aspect little investigated in the country, and whose results were published in the journal Wetlands Ecology and Management.

Credits: Ariel Valdés in peat bog studied.

It was at the northern end of the Isla Grande de Chiloé, in the Lake District, where a forest was devastated by an accident whose causes remain a mystery. According to some testimonies, it happened more than 100 years ago, probably being a forest fire that abruptly modified the landscape.

Since then, the biodiversity of the area began to recover gradually, later becoming 16 hectares of a peat bog, a rare type of wetland in Chile, where the soils are flooded by abundant rainfall and lack of drainage, being colonized by different species of mosses, often belonging to the genus Sphagnum.

A couple of decades ago, a part of this anthropogenic bog - named for having been born from a human disturbance - was under the protection of Senda Darwin Foundation, in a private protected area where research is being carried out, while the other portion remained in a neighboring farm, destined for grazing and extracting moss. This motivated a group of scientists to study how the difference in uses in the same place influences the carbon cycle, an aspect little investigated in the country, and whose results were published in the journal Wetlands Ecology and Management.

“The bogs are important because they keep a lot of carbon. Globally, for example, they store a third of the carbon in soils, although they cover about 2,8% of the planet's land surface. What we saw is that the peat bog studied, especially the preserved area, is capturing CO2, thereby helping to mitigate climate change, ”he says Jorge Pérez Quezada, scientist of the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity (IEB) and professor at the University of Chile.

El Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) researcher, Ariel Valdés, details that “the sector of the bog where conservation is being carried out behaves as a carbon sink, that is, sequesters more than it emits. On the other side with extractive use, the bog also acts as a sump, but captures only 25% of what the protected sector can. These results account for the state of the ecosystem and the effect that human activities can have on the local carbon balance. ”

Thus, the study coincides with other research whose results show that the peat bogs in pristine or less impacted state usually store more CO2, which is altered by drought stress or human disturbance. It has already been observed in the northern hemisphere, where around 90% of the world's peatlands is concentrated, that the increase in temperature and the decrease in rainfall cause these wetlands to release more CO2.

In the case of Chile, they are not free from human impact and the climate crisis. To get an idea, the use of Sphagnum As a horticultural substrate has caused the collection of large volumes of this moss, added to the grazing and trampling of cattle that enter the peatlands due to the lack of fences that prevent their access.

In addition, it is expected that rainfall will decrease between 10 and 20% in Chilean Patagonia, and that the average temperature would increase from 1 to 3 ° C between the years 2071 and 2100.

However, its important role in carbon sequestration would not be the only ecosystem benefit that could be affected.

Juan Luis Celis, IEB researcher and academic of the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso, he adds that these wetlands “have a very important role in the hydrological cycle, since they help water retention, such as rain. The vegetation of the peat bogs, in addition to other organisms that inhabit it, contribute to filtering the water, so they contribute both to the provision and to the best quality of this resource ”.

This is no less if we consider that several locations in the Los Lagos Region have been affected by the summer water shortage.

Reborn after adversity

In the south of Chile, forests have been degraded and transformed by logging and forest fires, which has generated, in some places, a mosaic of thickets and anthropogenic peatlands. “For the most part, the peat bogs in the north of the Island of Chiloé are of human origin, the product of deforestation or clearing of the forest,” says Celis.

Despite these impacts in the region, around the study site there is an old forest that has between 300 and 400 years.

So much The peat bog like that forest has been monitored by a three meter tower and another one of 42 meters, respectively, which are part of a high-tech equipment that directly measures CO emissions and flux2 between these ecosystems and the atmosphere.

Equipment for CO2 flow measurement between the studied peat and the atmosphere. Credit: Ariel Valdés

This has allowed them to compare, confirming that the anthropogenic peat bog fixes less carbon than the forest, which also contains much more CO2 accumulated by his age. “The peat bog has 130 tons, and the forest around 1.068 tons per hectare,” says Pérez Quezada.

However, the contribution of the peat bog remains relevant, especially in the conserved area where it is not only inhabited by mosses, but also by ferns and shrubs, which has increased its level of carbon sequestration.

The above differs from the vegetation of the sector used for livestock and moss extraction. "It's funny, because there is a greater diversity of plants on the disturbed side, but mainly of exotic species that have been transported by cattle from other places, when they are given bales, for example, ”adds the academic from the University of Chile.

Also, the bog preserved by the Senda Darwin Foundation has been transformed into an easily accessible food source for native animals Like birds and pudding.

Valdés stresses that “in this type of ecosystem there are also species of charismatic plants such as Drosera uniflora ”, carnivorous plant also known as "dew of the sun", in addition to orchids and a great diversity of mosses and lichens.

Therefore, the researchers say that, whether peat bogs of natural or human origin, both are important to conserve and restore for the contributions they deliver in this context of climate crisis and global change.

Match in the need to regulate moss extraction, since, if carried out in a controlled and supervised manner by a specialist, not only would the economic support for people be ensured, but also the persistence of this ecosystem over time.

Indeed, as a result of the joint work between the scientific community and the State, the application of the Decree 25 2017 - published in the Official Gazette in February 2018 - whereby the Ministry of Agriculture establishes measures for the protection of moss Sphagnum magellanicum, popularly known as pompom. For this purpose, a harvest plan must be submitted to the Agricultural and Livestock Service, which may accept or reject the request based on a series of requirements, something that the researchers value, who hope that it will be audited for its actual compliance.

Other actions are also needed, such as restricting the entry of livestock to these places, and carrying out activities that promote their knowledge and assessment, such as tourism and environmental education conferences, taking advantage of their unique landscape.

“These ecosystems are very strange, they have a very particular aesthetic and scenic beauty. It is very different from the other types of wetlands that people know, so they have a very large tourism potential, ”says the WCS scientist.

To advance in protection and restoration of peatlands, as well as in its potential contributions in national scientific and technological development, more research is required. Valdés says that "there are cases of positive experiences in the recovery of these ecosystems in other countries, however, it is unknown if this is possible in Chile, so it is very important to study them."

In the specific case of bogs of human origin, Celis emphasizes that “although they may be a carbon sink, its role is much less than that of the forest that was there, originally, so the importance of protecting the forest in this last sense is highlighted again ”.

Pérez Quezada agrees: “Now that we discuss how to mitigate for the next COP25, it is important to remember the need to protect those places that already have a lot of accumulated carbon, such as temperate forests and peat bogs. We can worry about capturing carbon, on the one hand, but we will continue to lose on the other if we continue to destroy these ecosystems. It is extremely important to keep them. ”

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