The Indonesian Peat Prize

In case you missed the build-up and outcome of the Indonesian Peat Prize, here’s a recap on it that was published last week in Peatlands International, written by Lydia Cole. 

After much anticipation, on World Wetlands Day in February of this year, the winning team of the Indonesian Peat Prize was revealed.  With two years from launch to completion, spanning a period of new and recurring outbreaks of fire in the country, controversial instructions on the use of peatland concessions and growing international pressure to divest funds from the palm oil industry, this announcement is much welcomed.  But what is the Indonesian Peat Prize?  Who are the winners?  And importantly, how might it contribute to tropical peatland conservation?

An area of deforested, drained and burnt peatland, converted into smallholder agriculture, within a Biodiversity Concession, Central Kalimantan province. Mapping of these activities, and the depth of peat on which they are happening, will assist with planning more responsible landscape management.

What is the Indonesian Peat Prize?

After the devastating peat fires of 2015, creating a toxic haze that covered parts of Southeast Asia for months, the spotlight was on Indonesia to address the cause of the burning.  Unsustainable land use in peatland areas was the primary offender, whether resulting from activities of industrial-scale oil palm and pulp and paper companies, smallholders, or a mixture of both.  Who exactly is to blame varies by place and perspective; further discussion of which will be left for another day!  In order to address this international disaster and restore the burnt landscapes, the Indonesian Government established the Peatland Restoration Agency, or BRG, in January of 2016.

Before the BRG could address the challenge of understanding the distribution of peatland (mis)uses and consider where to restore the ecosystem, there was a need to know where the peat actually is, and crucially, how deep it is.  There was already a map of peatland distribution in Indonesia: Wetlands International compiled one in 2004 and the Ministry of Agriculture in 2011, which can be accessed through the Global Forest Watch platform.  However, these maps offer a very coarse spatial resolution and an even coarser indication of how thick the peat is.  Since their production, earth observation and ground-based technologies have improved dramatically, making higher resolution mapping more feasible.

Cue the Indonesian Peat Prize.  The David and Lucile Packard Foundation provided one million USD to the Indonesian Government’s Geospatial Information Agency (BIG) with which to launch an international competition with the primary goal of developing a “fast, accurate and cost-effective way to map Indonesia’s vast tropical peatlands”.  The open competition had been bubbling away since February 2016, with a selection of finalists being put through their paces over the last six months.  But there could only be one winner!

And the winner is ….

The winning team is an international collaboration of scientists (mostly men!), coming from Indonesia, Germany and the Netherlands.  The aptly named International Peat Mapping Team (IPMT) comprises members from Indonesia’s Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), South Sumatra province’s Sriwijaya University, and three German institutions: Greifswald University, the Remote Sensing Solutions GmbH (RSS) and Airbus DS Geo.  They convinced the judges of their ability to create a prototype method for surveying the country’s peatlands, with their proposed “multistage” solution: a cost-effective, versatile combination of satellite remote sensing, airborne LiDAR and ground-based measurements.  Though this group was awarded the prize, other finalists proposed using similar techniques (with the possibility of lower costs) which may also form part of the solution as the exercise unfolds.

A new oil palm plantation under development, at the edge of a protected peatland (with remnant peat swamp forest visible in the background). How far into the peat dome the plantation extends, and thus the extent of impact, will be measurable using the new mapping techniques.

How might the prize help peat?

In theory, the map will create a universal, repeatable method for mapping peatlands across Indonesia (and potentially the world).  Having One Map from which land covers can be defined and land uses observed and allocated will enable a greater transparency in local and national government decision-making.  It may also help to reduce the regular conflict encountered when land management decisions are made without complete information on land use and tenure.

In practice however, a lot of money has been spent on a mapping exercise that will only mean anything if there is money to spend on the management exercise to accompany it.  The conservation challenge on the ground is likely less to do with knowing the exact depth of a peat substrate and more to do with the depth of understanding of the people living there of how important maintaining a wet peatland is; coupled with the depth of understanding of the challenges and aspirations of those people by the institutions proposing sustainable management policies.  The cost of understanding the extent of the challenge, of figuring out how to restore such a transformed landscape and of enforcing the variety of potential policy solutions must not be underestimated.

Nazir Foead, the Head of the BRG, tasked with one of the most challenging jobs in the world, is “optimistic that the agency will complete the restoration program [of over 2 million hectares] by 2020“.  To put this into perspective, the UK has committed to having two million hectares of restored or sustainably managed peatlands by 2040, and that will likely be a struggle despite the growing funds available, the restoration expertise sourced from across the northern hemisphere and the level of national support (in the most part).  But the political commitment and transparency shown by Indonesia is admirable, and strongly welcomed at this critical point in the story of tropical peatlands.

Congratulations to the winners; good luck to the BRG.  Your work is just beginning!

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Peat @ the EGU

Several of the UK TPWG members attended the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly in Vienna last week, and Sarah Cook has kindly provided a brief summary of this exciting, and pleasingly peaty event.

Last month I attended the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, Austria. The conference was a buzz of scientific minds with over 14,000 participants in attendance from over 107 different countries! This was my first time at the EGU, which was both exiting but also overwhelming at times, with over 649 sessions running throughout the week, 4,000+ talks and 11,000+ posters, deciding how to spend each day was a challenge in itself! Luckily, the EGU app came in really handy allowing me to create my own personalized timetable, whilst helping reduce paper consumption. Furthermore, the venue came stock pilled with coffee outlets and even its own beer garden to ensure a much needed recharge between sessions.

Still “Welcome” in Europe!

One of my favorite sessions was ‘Peatlands and wetlands in the tropics and beyond’ co-conveyed by our very own Ian Lawson. The session attracted significant interest and covered topics from greenhouse gas emissions and eco-hydrology to the responsible management of tropical peatlands. It was great to see so much enthusiasm for tropical peat research from all breadths of the scientific community. I was also fortunate enough to present a poster on my PhD research, on the Friday afternoon, and had some great feedback and comments.

A new presentation format, which I had never come across before, was PICO’s (Presenting Interactive Content). This gave speakers a 2-minute opportunity to advertise their research, after which people could visit their PICO stand to ask more questions and interact with the slides further. The venue was also host to outreach talks and debates including ‘Women in geoscience’ and ‘Is open science the way to go?’ However, while the conference offered a non-stop array of sessions to attend I did try to see more than just the conference center and explore the beautiful city. All in all I had a great first experience at the EGU and can’t wait to go back again!

 

 

 

 

 

Tropical peatlands at the Royal Geographical Society: where has the swamp gone?

Paul aplin in Malaysia

This coming Monday (7th December) Prof. Paul Aplin, a founder member of the UK-TPWG will present some of the results of his recent work to assembled guests at the Royal Geographical Society in London. Paul’s research focus is remote sensing of environmental distributions, with particular focus on spatial and temporal scales of observation, methods of land cover characterisation, and application to ecological problems. He has been at the forefront of UK remote sensing developments for the last decade, chairing the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society, leading a major Earth Observation knowledge exchange initiative for the Natural Environment Research Council, and acting as national delegate in the International Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. In recent years, Paul has become progressively soggier and grimier after being persuaded to team up on, first one, then a series of wetlands projects around the world.

In 2014 Paul won the RGS-IBG Ralph Brown wetland expedition award, and his upcoming presentation will focus on the decline of peat swamps in North Selangor, Peninsular Malaysia, driven in large part by expanding palm oil plantations. North Selangor includes a forest reserve covering more than 80,000 ha, and is home to mammals such as silvered monkeys, tapirs, and sun bears; the Sumatran rhino is now sadly extinct in Peninsular Malaysia. The region has seen an increase in the area of palm oil plantations (many in peatland areas) from 31,000 ha in 1966 to 183,000 ha in 1995, with further expansion since that time. Paul will also draw on his experiences of peatland research in Panama, including examples of how exploitation and conservation can be balanced.

Further details about RGS ‘Monday night lectures’ can be found here. Any other queries can be directed to Paul.Aplin@edgehill.ac.uk

C-PEAT update

A brief report from Lydia Cole on the recent C-PEAT meeting convened at Columbia University in New York.

About a month ago, from the 11th to 13th October, 52 scientists met at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York, to discuss peat.  The meeting was convened by Zicheng Yu from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, who was responsible for garnering support for this working group of PAGES.  The newly fledged C-PEAT, Carbon in Peat on EArth through Time, aims to bring together peat scientists from across the world and from a range of disciplines, to answer questions about how carbon in peatlands has changed throughout the past and how it might vary into the future.  I was fortunate enough to attend the meeting, along with Ian Lawson and various others that have or are still working with the UKTPWG, including Outi Lähteenoja.  Here is a brief report of the meeting.

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The meeting crew, getting the C-PEAT ball rolling.

The main questions that led discussions during the workshop were:

  • Why is there peat?
  • How much and how fast can peats accumulate?
  • What will happen to peat in the future?

By the end of the three days, I think we were closer to knowing more clearly about what we don’t know, than to actually answering these questions!  But we exchanged a huge amount of new information in the process, some of which I’ve reported on below, under each question.

Why is there peat?

We spent one break-out session seeing if we could provide new insights into what the critical controls on peat formation might be.  After learning from the talks about the huge range of peatlands present today and during the past, from the diverse forested swamps of Papua New Guinea, to the high-altitude Andean ‘cushion’ peats, to the organic-rich sediments buried under glacial tills in Canada, all with their differing physical parameters, this proved challenging.  As did attempts at making generalisations about peat formation through time; time being hundreds of millions of years.  One scientist aptly commented that “coal is carbon; peat is water”, which helps to explain part of the picture!  There were a number of discussions about deep-time peats and coal, and whether we could make inferences on their development dynamics based on more recent peat formations.  A work in progress (by the Deep-time and Buried Peats Thematic Groups).

How much and how fast can peats accumulate?

What are the differences/similarities in peat accumulation rates along different temporal and spatial gradients?  Answers on a postcard please.  In a very interesting presentation, René Dommain, Smithsonian Institute, presented on tip-up pools in tropical peatland ecosystems and the importance of considering them when interpreting age-depth modelling and peat accumulation dynamics.  Rene’s fieldwork focused on the coastal peat domes of Brunei, but some other spectacular and more unexpected domes and craters were brought to everyone’s attention:

*Numbers not verified – may have passed through multiple Chinese whispers.

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Breakfast chats (about peat?!) in the sunshine, at the Lamont-Doherty campus of Columbia University.

What will happen to peat in the future?

Where will new peat formations arise?  Where will peats disappear?  And where will they persist?

Will bogs persist with greater frequency than fens?  Nigel Roulet, McGill University, presented on the greater resilience of bogs compared to fens, with bogs maintaining hydrological independence from the surrounding environment and therefore being more able to resist the potential impacts of climate change.  Jeff Chanton, Florida State University, talked about the SPRUCE mega-project he’s involved with, in the Marcell Experimental Forest in Northern Minnesota, which is attempting to monitor how temperate peatlands respond to changes in climate.  Watch this space for the release of the experiment’s findings.

Ian Lawson, University of St. Andrews (and key member of the UKTPWG), presented on what we know about the tropical lowland peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon.  He also talked about the threats to their persistence, one of which was an unlikely suspect: aboveground carbon maps, which demonstrate the relatively lower standing carbon stocks in peatland areas compared to in terra firme forests, and fail to illustrate their rich belowground carbon store.  Ian highlighted the danger of these maps being used in land use decision-making in Peru, potentially erroneously directing forest conversion to these carbon rich areas.  And these peatlands don’t have the emotive conservation pin-up that their Southeast Asian relatives have.

Steve Frolking, University of New Hampshire, presented an analysis on carbon losses from tropical peatlands under different land use change scenarios into the next 50 years.  An interesting desk-based exercise that warns of the strong emissions legacy of the peatland management practices that are pervasive across much of Southeast Asia now.

One major area of peatland that we still know so little about was sadly not represented at the meeting: the peat swamps of Central Africa.  Perhaps that gap can be filled by members of this group at the next meeting.  There was also a distinct lack of anyone named Pete there.

As we move into the Anthropeatscene (!), we need to consider exactly what and where the threats to peatland persistence are.  And what the opportunities are for peatland conservation.  I’m sure everyone is aware of the fires that have been raging in Indonesian peatlands over the last few months (if not, look at this and this previous post), exacerbated to a great degree by unsustainable peatland management.  One big question the workshop considered was: what unique contribution can C-PEAT make as a group to peatland science and conservation, in both the tropical and temperate zone?

If you have the answer, or indeed any answers to the questions above….or are working on them, do join the C-PEAT mailing list by signing up here.

 

European Conference of Tropical (partly peaty) Ecology coming up….

Time to register for the European Conference of Tropical Ecology (the annual meeting of the GTOE), this year to be held in Gottingen, Germany, from 23rd  to 26th February 2016.  Several of the group will be there, with Prof. Sue Page giving a key note talk and Dr Katy Roucoux chairing Session 14 (summary pasted below), which will showcase tropical peatlands.  Abstracts should be submitted by 15th October, and there’s more info about registration, etc. here.

Session 14: Past, present and future of tropical (wetland) ecosystems

Chair: Hermann Behling, Katherine Roucoux, Siria Biagioni
Contact: Hermann.Behling@biologie.uni-goettingen.de

Wetlands and peatlands cover large areas of the tropics, make an important contribution to regional biodiversity, host large below-ground carbon stores, provide valuable ecosystem services, and are a source of natural resources. Our knowledge of these complex ecosystems and their temporal dynamics remains far from complete. The aim of this session is to provide an interdisciplinary forum for researchers working on tropical wetlands and peatlands at a range of different timescales and using a range of different approaches. Ecological research on natural and anthropogenic processes in tropical ecosystems is often focused on present-day states, investigating a time interval in which species live under essentially unchanging ecological and climatic conditions. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a thorough understanding of present-day ecosystems requires a longer-term perspective. For example, the mechanisms responsible for current trajectories of change in forest community composition; the geographical variation of biodiversity; the process of plant community assembly; the role of ecohydrological self-organization in sustaining peat accumulation; and the extent of early anthropogenic impacts in the tropics, are all topics which would benefit from a fuller understanding of the historical development of ecosystems. A long-term perspective on topics such as the resilience of below-ground carbon storage is also vital if we are to contribute to predicting future scenarios of climatic and environmental change on regional and global scales. The session welcomes contributions from palaeoecology (typically millennial to centennial timescales), modern ecology (present-day and long-term monitoring), and ecosystem modelling (projections of future change), especially where an interdisciplinary approach is taken. Studies using innovative methodologies, for example for integrating spatial and temporal analyses through remote-sensing, will be particularly welcome. Although our primary focus is on wetlands, because lakes and peats provide excellent potential for palaeoecological research, contributions relating to the long-term dynamics of other tropical ecosystems will also be very welcome.

To come: extensive flooding in the peatlands of Sarawak

flood riskRajang Delta peatlands, Sarawak, MalaysiaA recent report by Deltares, commissioned by Wetlands International, describes how the drained peatlands of the Rajang Delta in Sarawak will subside over the coming decades and the implications that will have for the flooding of agricultural land, and indeed the remaining peat swamp forest.  You can read the summary here and watch an informative animation.  More info is also available on the Wetlands International website.

New report from the EIA

deforrestation-by-definitionThe Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has recently published a report, Deforestion by Definition, that describes some of the primary causes of deforestation in Peru, and the complexities of the issue.  Some of the areas where deforestation is rampant are close to the peatlands where members of the UK TPWG are doing important research: trying to highlight their location and document their ecological, economic and societal value before the loggers and diggers reach them.