Peatlands - fascinating ecosystems characterized by water, plants and peat

Mires and peatlands store peat due to waterlogging of plants. They are extraordinary/exceptional ecosystems and fascinate because of their impressive variety. They are habitat of specialized animal and plant species, function as storage for water, nutrients and carbon and provide various other ecosystem services.

About peatlands

Kieshofer Moor
near Greifswald

A Peatland is an area with a naturally accumulated peat layer at the surface. A Mire is a peatland with vegetation that forms peat [1]. Due to the interaction of vegetation, water and peat, mires are self-regulating systems and influence therefore their local climate and hydrology. About 15 % of the worldwide peatlands are drained and cause 5 % of the worldwide greenhouse gas emissions due to human activities.

Intact, ‘living’ peatlands display high genetic, species and ecosystem diversity and store enormous amounts of fresh water and carbon.

Peatlands provide habitats for rare, endangered and highly specialized species.

Carbon storage & climate
Peatlands are a highly effective carbon store which store more carbon than all forests of the world, even though they only cover 3% of the land surface of the earth which is a tenth of the area covered by forests.

Other ecosystem services
Natural peatlands provide many other valuable ecosystem services such as water retention and nutrient uptake improving the water quality.

Many peatlands – in Europe even most – have been drained and ameliorated. This has led to the loss of biodiversity and the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases. Rewetting these peatlands allows integration of conservation and utilization through wet, environmentally harmless forms of peatland agriculture.

Peatland use

Conventional land use of peatlands requires drainage, which causes several problems such as greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient efflux, loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, and increasingly impaired land use options. In Germany more than 30 % of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by the agricultural sector originate from this minor part of the agricultural area (s. fig.).

Fig.: Greenhouse gas emissions caused by agriculture on drained organic soils in Germany. (sector agriculture plus crop- and grassland management) (German Federal Environmental Agency 2016 [3])

Current agricultural practices are not adapted to peat soils. Continued agricultural use of peat soils needs large investments and many areas have been abandoned. On the other hand, biomass crop cultivation has in recent years increased pressure on marginal lands, including peatlands. This development aggravates the above mentioned problems.

Agriculture and forestry
Agriculture is the most important driver of peatland drainage and has the highest total environmental impacts. Annually about 30 t CO2-eq. per ha are emitted. The intensification of forestry production is a strong driver for drainage activities and comes up with similar emissions like agricultural activities.

Peat extraction
Peat used as growing media is a vital part of modern industrial horticulture. In some European countries peat is still used as fuel.

Peatland conservation

Peatland protection is climate protection

The conservation of mires and the rewetting of drained peatlands is connected with high greenhouse gas emission savings. Stopping the degradation of the peat body through rewetting is beneficial for biodiversity and the water body too. Wet peatlands fulfill many ecosystem services and save the peatland as archive containing information about the past millennia.

Further information and sources

[1]   Crump J (Ed.) (2017): Smoke on Water – Countering Global Threats From Peatland Loss and Degradation. A UNEP Rapid Response Assessment. United Nations Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal, Nairobi and Arendal. Smoke on Water

[2]   Wichtmann, W., Schröder, C. & Joosten, H. (eds.) (2016): Paludiculture - productive use of wet peatlands - Climate protection - biodiversity - regional economic benefits. 272 p. ISBN 978-3-510-65283-9

[3]    Umweltbundesamt (2016) National Inventory Report, Germany – 2016

[4]   Wetlands International (2015) Briefing paper: accelerating action to Save Peat for Less Heat!

[5]   Wilson D., Blain D., Couwenberg J., et al. (2016): Greenhouse gas emission factors associated with rewetting of organic soils. Mires and Peat, Volume 17 (2016), 1-28

[6]   Joosten, H., Tanneberger, F. & Moen, A. (Eds.) (2017) Mires and peatlands of Europe - Status,
distribution and conservation. Schweitzerbart Science Publishers, Stuttgart. 780 p. Link