Institute for Sustainability

Why peat is important to climate

Why peat is important to climate

Peat is one of the most efficient carbon sinks on the planet and has massive implications for feedbacks between the peatland carbon cycle and the global climate system. It consists mainly of partially decomposed plants such as Sphagnum moss and is found in wetlands such as bogs and fens.

The UK’s peatlands alone (upland blanket, lowland raised bogs and fen peats) contain 5.1 billion tonnes of carbon. The decomposition of peat has serious consequences for the future of the planet. What controls decomposition is key to understanding the relationship between peatlands and climate. 

In tracking the decomposition of peat soil, Dr Geoffrey Abbott is using biomarkers to model it over time as decomposing plants leave a chemical fingerprint in peat. He employs an array of methods available to characterise soil where mosses grow and many other plants that form peat.

Geoffrey and colleagues have developed new tools for tracking the organic molecules that are bound to peat, which are used to understand how it changes over time. He is investigating the carbon response of peatland to fluctuations in the water table in Sweden and Northumberland, and the effects of afforestation on peat carbon storage. Both of these are caused by climatic events such as floods and droughts.

Selected Publications:

  • Williams JS, Dungait JAJ, Bol R, Abbott GD. (2015) Contrasting temperature responses of dissolved organic carbon and phenols leached from soils. Plant and Soil, e-pub ahead of print.
  • Schellekens J, Bradley JA, Kuyper TW, Fraga I, Pontevedra-Pombal X, Vidal-Torrado P, Abbott GD, Buurman P. (2015) The use of plant-specific pyrolysis products as biomarkers in peat deposits. Quaternary Science Reviews, 123:254-264.
  • Schellekens J, Bindler R, Martínez-Cortizas A, McClymont EL, Abbott GD, Biester H, Pontevedra-Pombal X, Burrman P. (2015) Preferential degradation of polyphenols from Sphagnum – 4-isopropenylphenol as a proxy for past hydrological conditions in Sphagnum-dominated peat. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 150: 74-89.