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School of Geography

River Basin Processes and Management Projects

Lowland peat systems in England & Wales - evaluating greenhouse gas fluxes and carbon balances

PI: Andy Baird

Co-I: Pippa Chapman, Joseph Holden

Overview: Peatlands provide the United Kingdom's largest terrestrial carbon store, and in good condition can sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the accumulating peat, helping to mitigate against climate change. However, the disturbance or inappropriate management of this store can release large quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Within the UK, land-use impacts on peats are disproportionately concentrated on lowland bogs and fens, due to their high agricultural value (in regions such as the Fens of East Anglia), their relative accessibility compared to upland blanket bogs, and their widespread historic exploitation for peat extraction. As a result, it has been estimated that over half of all greenhouse gas emissions from UK peatlands are derived from degraded lowland peats in England and Wales. However, although it is clear that peat is being lost from many areas, direct measurements of greenhouse gas emissions from lowland peats are sparse. This project will provide the first full carbon and greenhouse gas budgets for lowland peats across England and Wales. We will monitor a range of sites spanning a range of land-use, from near-pristine bogs and fens to sites affected by drainage, nutrient enrichment, peat extraction, intensive grazing and arable agriculture. To quantify the greenhouse gas budget for each site we will measure the exchange of carbon dioxide between the peatland and the atmosphere, together with emissions of the other major greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide. We will also measure other pathways of carbon loss from the peat, in particular dissolved and particulate carbon loss in drainage water. These measurements will be supported by the detailed characterisation of site conditions and management at each site, so that results can be scaled up to the wider area of lowland peat. Results will be used to develop 'emission factors' for each peat type under a range of management activities, which can be included in the UK's 'Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry' greenhouse gas accounting inventory. The results should improve the evidence base on which  national policymakers and local land-managers make decisions on the management of lowland peats, allowing them to balance the role of peatlands in regulating greenhouse gas emissions against the many other 'ecosystem services' they provide, such as food production, floodwater regulation, places for recreation and habitats for rare species. We will undertake this research in close collaboration with a range of landowners and stakeholders including farmers, conservation organisations and peat extraction companies, and ensure that the knowledge obtained from the research is communicated with the wider community of stakeholders with an interest in the future of Britain's lowland peatlands.

Start date: 1st April 2012

End date: 31st March 2016

Funder:  Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)