Got any Snippets to share on peatlands?

The International Peatland Society – the organisation dedicated to developing and promoting methods in the responsible management and wise use of peatlands and peat – is always on the look-out for nuggets of news on peatlands.

If you’ve just published a peaty paper, had an exciting fieldwork experience, written a report, or recently got stuck in a bog, the IPS would like to hear about it and send it out to the international peatland community via their monthly Peatland Snippets.  Please send any relevant pieces (5 to 10 lines) to susann.warnecke (at) by the 20th of the month.

There’s space for longer articles too, in the IPS’s Peatlands International magazine, which is published several times per year.  Susann would love to hear from you if you’re interested in submitting a piece.  Both publications are free to IPS members, but submissions are invited from non-members also….though why not join?  More information on membership rates and privileges can be found here.

And excitingly, this year is the Society’s 50th year anniversary – to be celebrated aboard a boat in the Rotterdam riviera!  If you’d like to join the Jubilee Symposium from 11th to 13th September, tickets can be bought here.

The party boat!

Exciting peaty post doc opportunity

Dr Katy Roucoux and team (members of the UK TPWG) at the University of St. Andrews are advertising a post doc position to work on the following project:

Valuing intact tropical peatlands’: a project that aims to improve our understanding the socio-cultural and economic value of peatlands in Amazonia

The Research Fellow will have an opportunity to work with an established interdisciplinary team based in the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews, UK, and colleagues at the Instituto de Investigationes de la Amazonia Peruana (IIAP), Iquitos, Peru. Please follow the link above for more details, or email Katy ( for more information if required.

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The new offices at St Andrews do have a roof!


An Interdisciplinary Project: Fish and the Importance of Fish(ing) to Human Communities in Sabangau, Indonesia

In this fortnight’s blog-post, Sara Thornton, a member of the UK TPWG and PhD student at the University of Leicester, gives us the low-down on her doctoral research, looking at fish diversity and much more, in the Sabangau peatlands of Indonesian Borneo.  Her important work is also captured by a set of beautiful photographs that she took whilst on fieldwork (see the press release images).

A family of fishers checking their catch on the Sabangau River. Photo by Sara Thornton

A family of fishers checking their catch on the Sabangau River. Photo by Sara Thornton

My PhD takes an interdisciplinary approach to understand the socio-ecological system of the Sabangau, Indonesian Borneo. In particular, I focus on the relationships between human fishing communities, nonhuman fish communities and other nonhuman aspects of the ecosystem (including abiotic aspects and spiritual nonhuman beings) and how these relationships lead to certain emergent properties (e.g. resilience). I also consider human perceptions of environmental change, and how fire, dams, human population growth and fishing diversification/intensification impact fishing and human livelihoods. To do this, I used the following methods:

  1. Surveys of fish communities and water quality in the Sabangau River and the Sabangau Forest
  2. Questionnaires, interviews and focus groups in two local communities: Kereng Bangkirai (situated near to the intact Sabangau peat-swamp forest) and Taruna Jaya (situated in an area of severely degraded peatland)
An unedited photo showing fishermen fishing on the Sabangau River during the catastrophic haze from forest and peatland fires in 2015. Photo by Sara Thornton

An unedited photo showing fishermen fishing on the Sabangau River during the haze from the forest and peatland fires in 2015. Photo by Sara Thornton.

Some notable results included:

  • A final fish species list of 54 species! Making Sabangau a notable area for peat-swamp forest fish diversity
With my research assistants, we trapped over 60,000 fish over a year of monthly fish surveys. Here one assistant measures the Standard Length of a Belontia hasselti. Photo by Sara Thorn

With my research assistants, we trapped over 60,000 fish over a year of monthly surveys. Here one assistant measures the Standard Length of a Belontia hasselti

  • With the water quality data (e.g. pH, water temperature, dissolved oxygen levels) I am able to recommend improvements for future fish sampling
  • The fish and water quality data provides a baseline for future monitoring
  • Fish was considered in both locations to be the most important nonhuman forest species to people’s lives. This is not surprising considering the economic importance that fish has locally, and that it is one of the main sources of protein:
    • I found the average annual fish consumption in Sabangau is nearly three times the global average!
Learning to make a traditional fish trap (Dudin on left and Sara on right), photo by Julie Lasne

Learning to make a traditional wire trap, tampirai, used for the fish surveys (Dudin on left and Sara on right). Photo by Julie Lasne.

  • The human communities expressed important cultural values, aesthetic and experiential values when discussing many of the nonhuman forest species (e.g. fish, orangutans, gibbons, hornbills). There were strong spiritual beliefs related to fish and the river in the Sabangau area
    • This included taboos related to eating or cooking certain fish species, the presence of various river and forest spiritual beings and the use of offerings to improve fish catches
    • These cultural perspectives are vital to include in considerations of values associated with ecosystems and biodiversity
    • Spiritual beliefs can play an important role in determining how some people in Sabangau relate to the river, to fish and thereby the ‘environment’

Lastly, while fish may not be the most charismatic of peat-swamp forest species like great-apes or felids, they provide one of the clearest faunal links between people, livelihoods and their ‘environment’ in the Sabangau. In areas with high dependence on fish for livelihoods, fish research and conservation projects could be a great opportunity to increase the relevance of environmental research to local communities and thereby potentially increasing local support for conservation projects.

New peatlands mapped in the Congo Basin

By Lydia Cole

On Tuesday, a very exciting article was published in Nature, describing the vast area of peatland that has just been mapped and measured in the Congo Basin.  It’s even bigger than Wales, apparently.  It was discovered by members of our very own UK Tropical Peatland Working Group: Dr Greta Dargie and her former supervisor, Dr Simon Lewis, after many a long and hard hour spent traversing the unstable, humid and mosquito-ridden peatlands of the DRC and Republic of Congo.

The ‘finding’ of this peatland has elevated our most recent estimate of the magnitude of the peat carbon store across Africa by an incredible five times; vastly increasing our calculation of the total volume of tropical peatlands also.  Whilst it’s probably no news to local people that there’s a massive swamp in their back garden, it is unlikely that they, and evidently the global community, appreciated the real extent of this waterlogged forest and how much peat was hiding underneath.

Given the remote location of the Cuvette Centrale peatlands, the threat of industrial agriculture is unusually rare (unlike in Southeast Asia).  However this carbon store is not immune to the potential and pervasive impact of climate change, and specifically climatic drying, where evapotranspiration may exceed precipitation, as Professor Sue Page aptly explains.

Accompanying the scientific publication, there was a torrent of popular pieces published describing the importance of this revelation to the general public.  These included articles in The Guardian, The New York Times and the International Business Times.  And for a more detailed account from Simon, have a read of The Conservation.

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Simon Lewis and Greta Dargie in a Congolese peatland


Peat in the news


The problems in Southeast Asian peatlands are ongoing and will take years to solve, but efforts continue on the part of scientists and those working in agriculture to reduce emissions and limit burning. Yet controversy remains, with palm oil being a major source of income in the region, and with powerful lobbying forces attempting to argue that peatlands should not be made into totally protected areas. While Indonesia has taken some steps towards legislating to protect peatlands, with the government acting in the wake of the 2015 fires, the Malaysia government has unswervingly supported the palm oil industry. Following the 15th International Peat Congress in August, the first held in Southeast Asia, four scientists including our own Sue Page have written a letter which was published in Science on the 4th November. In it they reiterate arguments that using peatlands for agriculture is unsustainable:

“Peat fires are globally significant for their greenhouse gas emissions and threats to human health and regional economies. Peat oxidation leads to high CO2 emissions and land subsidence. As the land surface falls toward river and sea levels, it will be subject to periodic and eventually permanent flooding, limiting future agricultural production (5). Agricultural use of peatlands cannot, therefore, be considered sustainable from either environmental or socioeconomic perspectives.”

The full content of the letter by Wijedasa et al. can be read here


Join us in Vienna next year

img_0748The European Geosciences Union will be meeting as usual in Vienna in April 2017, and a number of UK-TPWG members have decided to organise a session in which to present and discuss recent research. The last few years have been eventful ones in tropical peatland science, and we very much hope that you will be able to come to Vienna and share your work with us. If you want to submit an abstract, you can find further details here. The deadline for submissions is the 11th of January.

Convener: Ian Lawson 
Co-Conveners: Outi Lähteenoja , Hinsby Cadillo-Quiroz , Susan Page , Jorg Kaduk , Sofie Sjogersten 

Until about a decade ago, lowland tropical peatlands were thought to be overwhelmingly concentrated in SE Asia. Accordingly, a sizeable body of knowledge was developed on peatlands in Malaysia and Indonesia. Ironically, just as their huge carbon storage and unique ecology were being explored, they were increasingly deforested, drained, and given over to agriculture; only fragments of the original vegetation now remain. However, extensive campaigns of remote sensing and fieldwork have shown in the past few years that lowland peatlands in fact occur very widely across the tropics, and in many cases they are comparatively pristine. Far from being anomalous, SE Asian peatlands now appear to be part of a wider pattern. This session aims to stimulate a new synthesis of our knowledge of the similarities and differences in peatland form and function across the tropics. Presentations focusing on aspects of distribution, hydrology, microbiology, geochemistry, (palaeo-)ecology, and conservation of tropical peatlands are welcome; we particularly encourage attempts to synthesize what is known, identify outstanding questions, and make comparisons between peatlands in different parts of the tropics and/or at higher latitudes.

Déjà vu? Haze returns to Southeast Asia

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Aerosols from biomass burning as determined by Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System

The last week has seen some of the first reports of haze resulting from peat fires for 2016. Drought conditions have persisted during the early part of this year in the more northerly areas of Southeast Asia, in particular countries such as Thailand and Vietnam. In some places this has caused large forest fires, aided not only by the dry conditions but by the wind. However, dry, hot weather has also affected other countries where peatlands are a larger proportion of the land area, particularly those north of the equator. The ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre reported:

“Large scale drier than usual weather conditions were observed across many parts of ASEAN region in March 2016. In particular, significantly below-normal rainfall, i.e. less than 50% of normal rainfall, was received over areas north of the equator including northern ASEAN, Malaysia, Singapore, northern Sumatra and eastern Kalimantan.”

The conditions are therefore set for fires again this year, with many hoping that the severity of last year’s fires will not be repeated. We are now already seeing some peatland fires, this time in Pahang (also see map above), a reminder that although last year much of the haze in Peninsular Malaysia was caused by transboundary pollution from other areas, there is also a domestic peatland fire problem. It is currently thought that, despite the drier than normal conditions, the haze will remain limited until the end of the monsoon in May.




Peat @ The European Conference of Tropical Ecology

Freddie at GTO

Freddie Draper presents his work on Amazonian peatlands


Tropical peatland scientists were out in force at the conference which attracted more than 360 delegates from around the world. 

Tropical peatlands were mentioned at the very start of the conference, where the terrible fires of last year were mentioned. In the foreword to the book of abstracts, Prof. Manfred Niekisch wrote:

“As ecological problems in the tropics are still on the increase with manmade fires devastating Indonesian forests during the last year, we need to join our efforts more than ever before. Not only the forests are burning, but much worse the layers of coal and peat under the surface are burning, so the recovery is close to impossible for the soil and the native vegetation. The reasons are known: plantations for oil palms and soy bean seem to be financially more attractive than natural forests, but only when you look at them from a merely financial short term perspective. ”

Prof. Sue Page gave the plenary talk at the start of proceedings on Thursday, entitled “Swamped! The trials and tribulations of tropical peatland science.” Sue proposed that we move away from notions of ‘sustainable’ agriculture in tropical peatlands, which is usually impossible, and towards notions of ‘responsible’ peatland use. She also discussed ongoing work to find economically useful tree species which can be grown in peatlands where drainage is more limited or where the natural water table is maintained, thus allowing the existing carbon store to be preserved.


Enthusiastic discussions were had in the poster sessions

There were a wide range of other talks and posters on tropical peatland research, including presentations by Dr Katy Roucoux who discussed succession in Amazonian peatlands and future threats from planned infrastructure, and presentations from Dr Tom Kelly and Dr Freddie Draper on their research into Amazonian peatland palaeoecology. Freddie emphasised the need to understand long-term processes when looking at modern peatland plant assemblages. Indeed the conference was well attended by both (neo) ecologists and palaeoecologists and all of those present agreed on the value of greater dialogue between the two groups of scientists, who often work separately and publish in different journals.

A number of talks looked at carbon storage and biodiversity in oil palm plantations. Jennifer Lucey (York University) gave a presentation entitled “How can we maximise biodiversity and ecosystem services in oil palm landscapes? Providing the evidence base to aid better policy making”. Given the large areas of tropical peatland which have already been converted to oil palm plantation, talks such as this which cross the divide from science into policy making are of particular interest to all of us.

Tropical peatland scientists were well represented in the prizes awarded at the end of the conference. Kartika Hapsari won the Merrian Award for her talk on long-term carbon accumulation in a peatland in Sumatra. Kartika is currently studying for her PhD at Gottingen and we look forward to seeing her final published results. Hsiao-Hang Tao (Oxford) also won third prize for her poster entitled “Long-term effects of crop residue application on soil biota activities and functions in oil palm agroecosystems.”

The full program including abstracts can be found here. A quick search reveals that the word ‘peat’ appears 92 times! Next year the conference will be held in Brussels. We hope that those working in tropical peatlands will come along again in 2017.

Calling all tropical peatland experts

Palm oil survery

A colleague in Malaysia, Rory Padfield at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, is leading a project on identifying priority research questions for the study of palm oil sustainability. Following an initial stakeholder workshop to establish the broad research themes (13 in total), a series of engagement activities and online surveys were conducted to identify individual research questions. These activities resulted in 185 research questions submitted by stakeholders from 33 different countries.

The project is now in its final stage where these 185 questions are prioritized by palm oil stakeholders so the project coordinators are looking to reach stakeholders in palm oil producing and consuming countries. This final stage is important since it will help us understand where we should be focusing our research efforts (activities, funding, academic debate, etc) to achieve palm oil sustainability. Furthermore, the result of this survey will help set the basis for a research strategy for the Academic Research on Palm Oil Sustainability (ARPOS) Network. ARPOS was established in 2014 and aims to connect academics from across the world interested in palm oil sustainability and related issues.

If you feel you have sufficient insight to provide useful input, please consider completing the survey. It’s estimated this will take between 5 and 15 minutes.

Well done Dr Greta Dargie

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Simon Lewis and Greta Dargie in a Congolese peatland


Congratulations to Greta Dargie who passed her PhD viva with minor corrections on Tuesday. Greta’s project is entitled ‘Carbon storage in Peatlands in the Congo Basin’, and her work received substantial media attention through the BBC and the Guardian amongst others following discoveries made during her fieldwork in 2014. The project was supervised by Dr. Simon Lewis and Dr. Ian Lawson and involved collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society-Congo and Congo-Brazzaville’s Marien Ngouabi University. Greta’s research involved working in exceedingly remote areas under very challenging conditions, and her thesis includes one of the most extensive and detailed studies of tropical peatland hydrology to date as well as the first estimates of the carbon stored in Congo’s peatlands. We wish Greta all the best for the future.