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.


Panamanian peats

In order to understand and appreciate the breadth and importance of the fieldwork carried out by members of the UK Tropical Peatland Working Group, we welcome posts on this blog from anyone with a story to tell.  Here, Nick Girkin, a PhD student from the University of Nottingham, describes the fieldwork he carried out last year in the relatively understudied peatlands of Panama.

In January 2016 I started the second stage of my fieldwork in San San Pond Sak wetland in Bocas del Toro Province, Panama. During my first visit in 2015 I trialled a range of fieldwork techniques investigating how below-ground plant inputs, particularly plant roots and root release of exudates and oxygen, can regulate surface greenhouse gas emissions and the extent to which this differs between plants of contrasting physiologies (i.e. palms vs broadleaved evergreen trees). This time I had developed a range of experimental approaches including plans for in situ mesocosms to exclude roots and root inputs, phloem labelling with natural abundance and 13C labels and a 13CO2 labelling experiment. The results of this work are important in terms of broadening our understanding of how regulation of greenhouse gas emissions may differ between different plant groups, with implications across forested peatland ecosystems.


Access to San San Pond Sak Wetland

The site itself is dominated by two plant species: Campnosperma panamensis, a broadleaved evergreen tree, and Raphia taedigera, a palm, and I aimed to assess whether differences in greenhouse gas fluxes between these species previously observed could be linked to differences in below ground release of root exudates, oxygen and decaying root material.

During both field campaigns I was based at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute research station on Isla Colon, a short boat ride away from my field sites on the mainland. On sampling days I, together with Erick Brown my field guide, would take a boat across the short stretch of the Caribbean to reach the wetland, before a short 1 km trek through the swamp forest to the field sites. The first week was particularly long and laborious, involving clearing a trail to the field site, making and then installing mesocosms into the soil. The average day of fieldwork involved collecting surface gas samples from the mesocosms and measuring a range of soil properties known to regulate gas fluxes (e.g. the height of the water table). CO2 and CH4 fluxes from these sites broadly match those measured in South East Asian Peatlands (400 – 800 mg CO2 m2 h-1 and 0.1 – 2 mg CH4 m2 h-1).

Work at the station involved tending to transplanted Campnosperma, Raphia and Symphonia globulifera saplings which towards the end of my fieldwork I labelled with 13CO2 with the aim of tracing recent photoassimilates into plant tissues, the soil microbial community and the production of CH4 through microbial use of plant derived carbon.


Reaching field sites in San San Pond Sak

Happy World Wetlands Day!

Today is a day to celebrate and spread the word about our world’s wonderful wetlands.

Taken from the World Wetlands Day website.

On this day 46 years ago, the Convention on Wetlands was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar.  Since then, the 2nd February has marked the signing of this Ramsar Convention: “an international treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources”.

Wetlands are increasingly acknowledged for their importance in controlling the quality and quantity of water flowing across landscapes, as reflected by the theme of this year’s World Wetlands Day: Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction.  They are also important for biodiversity conservation, for filtering pollutants from water supplies and of course our beloved peatlands are critical for sequestering and storing atmospheric carbon (in their intact form).

None of you peatland experts need to be told this though!  But there are many people out there who don’t understand how important bogs are.  Perhaps it’s time for a World Peatlands Day?

To celebrate the day and how peatland management has changed in the UK and Ireland over the last few generations, from predominantly extraction to conservation, here is a poem by Seamus Heaney:


Between my finger and my thumb   

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   

My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   

Bends low, comes up twenty years away   

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   

Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   

Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.


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

36_Biomass45burning_SE32Asia April 2017

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.