Two more peaty postdocs

There are two postdoctoral positions now available at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, both working on the restoration dynamics of tropical peatlands in Indonesia.

One is focused on plant ecology, working with Dr. Janice Lee and Prof. David Wardle, with more info here; and the other is focused on societal aspects, working with Dr. Lee, for which you can read more here.

Great and important projects; excellent PIs; and it’s all about peat.  Good luck applicants!  (And do spread the word to anyone else whom might be interested.)

Into the Swamp: Stories from the Peatlands of Borneo

Coming to Leicester (UK) from the 2-7th of April 2019, Newarke Houses Museum.


Sara Thornton wades through the Sebangau peat-swamp forest in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Jessica Thornton, 2015.

Join Dr Sara Thornton, Dr Sarah Cook and researchers from the University of Leicester and Borneo Nature Foundation on a journey into the amazing tropical peatlands of Borneo. Learn about the ecology of these forests and the threats that these vital habitats are facing through the stories and photographs of field researchers. The exhibition will accompany these photographs from the field with materials that explain the science and ecology of tropical peatlands, why they are relevant to even us in Leicester, and what you can do to help conservation efforts. See what a day in the life of a tropical peatland researcher looks like and have the chance to ask them any questions you can think of!

With support from Professor Susan Page (University of Leicester) and made possible by the British Ecological Society.

We are also collecting donations for the Borneo Nature Foundation; a not-for-profit conservation and research organisation who works to protect some of the most important areas of tropical rainforest, and to safeguard the wildlife, environment and indigenous culture on Borneo. See more information here:

Keep up to date with the event by liking our Facebook page:

Tropical peat swamps: Restoration of endangered carbon reservoirs

Last week, a very interesting paper was published that uses palaeoecological techniques to provide insights into the recovery dynamics of tropical peat swamp forests in Indonesia, with the aim of informing their contemporary management. The official Press Release for the publication is re-posted below (from the Journal of Ecology blog) with the kind permission of the first author, Kartika Anggi Hapsari

University of Göttingen press release

According to current knowledge, the land biosphere absorbs 30% of the CO2 produced by humans and thus contributes significantly to reducing global warming.

Tropical peat swamp forests are among the most important terrestrial carbon reservoirs, but they are increasingly being cleared. Data on their regenerative capacity have so far been completely lacking but are indispensable for conservation and restoration projects.

A research team of the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) 990 of the University of Göttingen has now determined for the first time by means of palaeoecological investigations how long it takes for a tropical peat forest to recover after a disturbance. The Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) in Bremen was also involved in the study, which was published this week in Journal of Ecology.

Peat swamp Forest

A peat swamp forest in Sumatra which has been converted into a palm oil plantation (Tim Rixen, Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research)

A peat swamp forest in Sumatra which has been converted into a palm oil plantation (Tim Rixen, Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research)

Using one such drill core, which contains deposits from the past 13,000 years, the researchers investigated traces of charcoal as an indication of human habitation, the composition of pollen and spores as well as the carbon content in various soil layers, which they dated with the radiocarbon method.

The drill core originated from a swamp area on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where the Malayu Empire reigned from the 9th to the 14th century. The nearby Buddhist temple complex Muara Jambi from this period is one of the largest in Southeast Asia and indicates a flourishing high culture.

As the peat samples and historical sources showed, the population then used the swamp forests for the extraction of firewood and building materials and also collected food there. In the 14th century Javanese immigrants displaced the Malayu from the region; the swamp forest was left to itself again.

“It was a rather low-impact use that largely preserved the hydrologic soil conditions,” said biologist Kartika Anggi Hapsari, first author of the study. “Yet we found that it took 60 years before similar amounts of carbon were sequestered in the peat deposits and even 170 years before the original vegetation as found in a virgin peat forest was restored.“

The Indonesian government has recognised the enormous importance of peat forests, not only as CO2 sinks but also as biological treasure troves with a high biodiversity and a number of endangered species, such as the orangutan. Restoration projects in Indonesia, however, are only designed for 60 or for a maximum of 95 years. According to the findings of the study, this period is far too short to restore the full ecosystem performance of an intact peat swamp forest.

“Given today’s practice of extensive deforestation and intensive use as plantations, it is likely that the regeneration will take much longer,” said Tim Jennerjahn of the ZMT, one of the authors of the study. “The question is also how long these peatlands will continue to exist. Due to the drainage and the decomposition of the organic peat soil, CO2 is released, leading to soil subsidence. The peatlands, most of which are located near the coast, could fall victim to rising sea levels.”

The research was conducted within the Collaborative Research Centre 990 “Ecological and Socioeconomic Functions of Tropical Lowland Rainforest Transformation Systems (Sumatra, Indonesia) – EfforTS”, which is funded by the German Research Organization (DFG).

Read the full article (freely available for a limited time): 
Hapsari KA, Biagioni S, Jennerjahn TC, et al. Resilience of a peatland in Central Sumatra, Indonesia to past anthropogenic disturbance: improving conservation and restoration designs using palaeoecology. J Ecol2018DOI: 10.1111/1365-2745.13000

Media contact:
Kartika Anggi Hapsari, University of Göttingen, Email:, Tel: +49 (0)551 39 7873

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!

The new TOC-loss-ometer!

This week, Sarah Cook, a member of the UK TPWG and PhD student at the University of Leicester, published an exciting paper documenting a new, low cost and easy-to-use methodology for measuring DOC losses from tropical peatlands.  Here she describes this important work.

My research is focused on investigating fluvial organic carbon (TOC) losses from tropical peatland oil palm plantations, within Southeast Asia. However, when I first started developing my research methodology I found limited guidance for analysing tropical TOC water samples. Tropical work is often undertaken in remote field sites with limited on-site laboratory facilities (if any), with any flat stable surface (i.e. the dinner table, car boot and concrete floors) quickly becoming a state of the art workbench. In addition, temperature also plays a significant role, with the hot sticky heat quickly degrading anything remotely organic. In my case this could mean the breakdown, and loss, of significant proportions of organic carbon from my water samples. This also meant the need to ship large, heavy and expensive boxes of samples back to the UK for analysis on specialised analytical equipment.


Collection of fluvial organic carbon from an oil palm plantation drainage channel.

This prompted us to develop better guidance for tropical researchers for TOC analysis, and lead to the publication of a water storage paper ( in 2016 and a recent paper in Water Research (February, 2017; In this most recent paper we investigated the suitability of UV-visible spectrometry to determine dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentrations in tropical water samples, building on an original methodology developed by (Carter et al.2012; on temperate peat. Overall UV-visible spectroscopy (using both a single and two-wavelength approach) was able to accurately predict tropical DOC concentrations. This offers research groups working in remote field locations the ability to rapidly analyse water samples post-collection, negating the need to store degradable samples for lengthy periods of time, helping improve spatial and temporal DOC measurements. In addition, the equipment required for this analysis can be set up at a field base, valuable for researchers in remote locations with limited access to specialised (and often expensive) analytical equipment. This in turn can help reduce the number of samples that need to be shipped back, further helping to reduce research costs. Full details of both papers can be found at:


Graphical abstract from the Water Research paper, showing an example of a plantation drainage channel and predictive ability of the UV model.

Indonesia Create New Peat Restoration Agency.


Burned tropical peatland (Photo: Tom Smith)

Writing in Conservation Biology, Ryan Chisholm and others have reiterated the need for serious long-term solutions to try and prevent a recurrence of the fires seen in 2015. Although the final estimate for the cost of the fires has yet to be calculated, if they are of a similar magnitude to those in 1997 it is likely to exceed $16 billion. However, progress is likely to be slow and Chisholm et al have commented:

“But implementation of reforms will be hampered by Indonesia’s decentralized government, opaque legal infrastructure, and weak law enforcement. Large-scale burning is already illegal in Indonesia.”

As such, the recent announcement by President Joko Widodo that a new peat restoration agency will be created is definitely a welcome one. As to who is responsible for starting the fires, the causal chain is not always straightforward. In an article for the Malaysian Insider, Erik Meijaard recently wrote that one of main causes of fires was not only large palm-oil plantations, but small-scale farmers. Indeed, while large companies must accept some of the responsibility and there have even been arrests of several executives, it is estimated that around 60% of fires are started by local smallholders. Sara Thornton of Leicester University, who was in the field in 2015, also observed that many fires were set by local people, not just by large companies. In a comment written to the UK-TPWG she said:

“Most of the smouldering land that I have seen around Palangkaraya was set alight by small-scale farmers and fishermen in order to plant crops and provide access to rivers for fishing, amongst other reasons…We need to work with local communities to understand the reasons they use fire in order to collaborate with them to find solutions that are locally and culturally appropriate for them.”

But as Chisholm et al. note, smaller producers often rely on larger companies for access to international markets, and so the reasons why people set fires are not always solely local in origin.

The incorporation of REDD+ into the COP21 Paris agreement, a mechanism for paying for forest preservation, is historic and offers some hope. The first round of grants have also recently been provided by the $10 billion Green Climate Fund, some of which has already been assigned to help preserve peatlands. However, efforts and promises have been made at several points in the past, and international agreements to try and limit transboundary haze already existed prior to 2015. Payments through schemes such as REDD+ are also not yet sufficient to exceed the income from land converted to agriculture. We wish all those working for the newly created peat restoration agency the very best of luck in their crucial task.


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

Rain quenches the flames: but what of the future?

Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System aerosol map

Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System aerosol map for 2nd November

The rain has arrived, and as the map above shows, the smoke and haze from this year’s fires is beginning to clear. Although particulate levels remain dangerously high in some areas, it is hoped that these will return to normal in the next few weeks.

But what now? Although 2015 has seen record-breaking carbon emissions and dangerous pollution levels that some have described as the worst environmental disaster of the 21st century, if the draining of peatlands and the careless application of fire to clear land continues a similar disaster could happen in just a few years if not sooner. As many have pointed out, the thick haze caused by burning peat and forests is not a new phenomenon in Indonesia, yet previous fires have not led to the determined action required to prevent them from being an annual occurrence. This year’s fires have been exacerbated by El Niño conditions, but bad fires also caused record-breaking pollution levels in 2013 when there was no El Niño. 

Dr Tom Smith carries equipment for analysing the smoke in Malaysian peatland

Dr Tom Smith carries equipment for analysing the smoke in Malaysian peatland

There is increasing pressure from the international community, including from the Obama administration, to prevent a re-occurrence of the terrible fires which happened this year. There are now promises from the Indonesian government that action will be taken, particularly with regard to peatland restoration, but the international community must hold them to this action. If the right measures are put into place, not only would there be massive health benefits, but it may be one of the easiest ways for Indonesia to achieve its commitment to reducing carbon emissions by the promised 26% by 2020.

The fires of Indonesia: the ongoing human and natural crisis

Fishermen on the banks of the river: On the way to Kereng Bangkirai people were fishing in the thick haze on the banks of Sabangau River. The smoke causes the world to turn an eerie orange color in the afternoon

Fishermen in thick haze on the banks of the Sebangau river: The smoke causes the world to turn an eerie orange colour in the afternoon

The UK-TPWG has been reporting on the recent fires which have raged across Indonesia. Dr Tom Smith has recently commented that, in less than twenty days, the CO2 emitted from the fires exceeded that emitted by the UK for an entire year.

This week, Sara Thornton, a doctoral student at the University of Leicester who has just returned from fieldwork in Palangkaraya, has kindly provided us with another informative first-hand report of the fires and their effect on human and animal health. Sara has been living in Indonesia for the past 15 months, researching the importance of fish and fishing to local communities, and the piece that follows is a personal account of her experiences.

Environmental and wildlife impacts

The fires in Indonesia are a global carbon emission catastrophe, but wildlife also suffers in many ways, the obvious one being habitat destruction. There is little information regarding the health impacts of the haze on wild animals, but 16 orangutan babies have been diagnosed with acute respiratory infections at the BOS Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rescue Center in Central Kalimantan. As primates, the impact of smoke on orangutan health is just as serious as it is for humans. For non-captive animals, Cassie Freund, Program Director for Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program explains: “Some animals die in the fires, whereas some are forced out into human-dominated landscapes where they are more susceptible to poaching and hunting.” (See her account of the fires and haze here). When you have worked in a peat swamp forest for a while, the impact of the haze is easy to see; you can watch the forest changing around you with increased leaf senescence. As a moist tropical rainforest, when fires do happen the trees are un-adapted to this and high tree mortality occurs with the tree composition in an area significantly altered even in the short-term. So animals become less active, the gibbons stop singing and as the weeks pass the forest becomes quieter, darker, and drier.

The rail is used to transport researchers to and from the Setia Alam base camp in the Sabangau Forest. Usually you have a wonderful view of the forest as you travel towards it, but on this day with severe smoke haze, you could hardly see it.

The rail used to transport researchers to and from the Setia Alam base camp in the Sabangau Forest. Usually you have a wonderful view of the forest as you travel towards it, but on this day with severe smoke haze, you could hardly see it.

Human impacts

The concentration of dust particles in the air can be measured on a Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) ranging from 0-300+. Anything above 300 is considered hazardous (healthy levels range from 0-50). While I was there, Palangkaraya experienced the highest concentration yet of dust particles, reaching a horrific PSI level of 2,300 in late September. Severe respiratory problems and resulting deaths are on the increase, with children, the elderly and those already facing health issues more at risk. Following the 1997 fires an estimated 20 million people in Indonesia suffered from respiratory problems, with 19,800-48,100 premature mortalities (Heil, 2007) and it is likely that we see numbers like this again this year.

Living in the haze, you are aware that what you are breathing is harming you – you can see it and feel it. Your eyes are constantly irritated and even indoors you can see the thick smoke haze hanging in the air in an acrid cloud. I experienced breathlessness and chest pains even when I was just sitting down. But dust particles are not your only worry when living in haze: carbon monoxide levels have also been off the scale, with Jakarta Post reporting that in Palangkaraya “people were in grave danger of dying painful deaths from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning”. The dangers are therefore invisible as well.

A mother and her child goes on with daily life in a smokey Palangka Raya. The PSI level was 2,300 that morning.

A mother and her child go on with daily life in smoky Palangka Raya. The PSI level was 2,300 that morning.

Living in the haze was what I imagine living in a post-apocalyptic world to be like; you just have to look at the photos if you think this is an exaggeration. Living in these conditions makes you inevitably suffer not only physically, but mentally as well. My colleagues and I have experienced prolonged and significant stress, fatigue, and desperation to leave, and I cannot begin to imagine the mental health impacts of people who face the haze every single year.

When I finally arrived back in the UK my relief was met with a guilt that I have never experienced before. I think of Palangkaraya, my friends, my research assistants and their children, and the fresh air here is a bitter comfort with the memory of what they are experiencing back in Indonesia. For those of us with the privilege of breathing fresh, healthy air and sitting in our comfortable offices, it is our responsibility to do what we can. If you would like to make a contribution, the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project is raising funds for local firefighting teams here.

If you have any questions you can contact OuTrop at or myself at

Update: Fires in Southeast Asian peatlands off the charts

A peatland fire smoulders, SE Asia (photo courtesy of Dr T. Smith)

A peatland fire smoulders, SE Asia (photo courtesy of Dr T. Smith)

Fires break the record for emissions recorded by the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System

Southeast Asian fires break the record for emissions recorded by the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System

Last week, the UK-TPWG heard from Dr Mark Parrington at the European Centre for Medium Range Forecasts. The Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System (CAMS) has been used to track the fires in Southeast Asia, producing some excellent maps showing the spread of aerosols across the region, and allowing us to monitor events as they happen.

CAMS produces maps of aerosols across the world, and the latest forecasts are provided on their website every day. The fire emissions are from MODIS observations of fire radiative power which are then used in the Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS) to produce daily emissions data. So a week on from the last update, we can now say that the fires this year are officially record breaking. In the last few days, emissions have approached 15 TgC/day, the highest ever recorded since these observations began in 2000. As Dr Tom Smith (KCL) has commented on twitter, this is the equivalent of New York City’s emissions for an entire year.

Map of Biomass burning aerosols from 24th September produced by the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System

Map of Biomass burning aerosols from 24th September produced by the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System