4 December 2023 | Category: Soil and land use

Amazing peat

By Guido Bakema

DLO Researcher

Greenhouse gas emissions from peatlands account for 2-3% of total emissions in the Netherlands. That is a significant contribution, which is why policymakers have turned their attention to peat. Is rewetting the solution? In early 2024, Wageningen University & Research peat researchers with expertise in soil science, ecology, landscape management, nature management, cultural history and economics will come together to seek real and far-reaching solutions for the long term.

I think I can safely say that less is known about peat than any other soil types. It is the only soil type that consists almost entirely of living or dead organic matter. This means that no two peat soils are alike. What all peatlands do have in common, is a long history of formation followed by a relatively short period of degradation.

As researchers of Wageningen University & Research (WUR), we are amazed by peat bogs. They are continuously in transition, and act as huge sponges, while ‘bog bodies’ also speak to the imagination. In much of the Netherlands, the peatlands defined the lives of the people who lived there. Peat grasslands, veenkoloniën (peat colonies), fens at the bottom of sandy stream valleys and raised bogs are all examples of peat landscapes. There used to be much more peat in the Netherlands, but turf production and drainage projects caused many extensive peatlands to disappear. Peatlands today are both nature reserve and farmland, where people also live and recreate.

Degradation and soil subsidence

When peatlands were developed, the water table subsequently dropped. The peat started to settle, shrink and was broken down by microorganisms (oxidisation). The result was soil subsidence. The most subsidence occurred in the 20th century, when more efficient drainage systems were dug to convert the peat bogs into farmland. When peat decomposes, it releases the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Today, it is the policy of the water authorities to prevent further lowering of groundwater levels, but the process of degradation and subsidence is continuing regardless.

De Alde Faenen, a peatland in Friesland (photo: Guido Bakema)

To retain peatlands and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we need to prevent peat from oxidising further. One way to do this is by increasing the groundwater level. A significant amount of research has already been conducted into this, often involving WUR scientists. Rewetting peatlands has proven to be quite successful, and many water authorities are experimenting with this solution. It will be very interesting to follow the results of these experiments and also gain a better understanding of the possible side effects.

Looking at the problem and the solutions from all sides

Because that is precisely the role of research into peat in the coming years, so that a scientific foundation can be developed for large-scale solutions. Earlier peat research was more practically focussed, but today we are trying to bring together all the knowledge we have on this subject. It is important to avoid scaling up a plan today, only to realise in twenty years’ time that it was not the best way forward. For example, increasing the groundwater level in a peat bog could actually lead to more emissions of nitrous oxide and methane. Where and when does that happen? And how much can you increase groundwater levels without such unwanted side effects?

If we want to find large-scale solutions for the peatlands of the Netherlands, we will need to look at both the problem and the solutions from all sides. How can we ensure that an entire peatland is inundated? Where will the water come from? How can we prevent emissions of greenhouse gases? What will the resulting landscape look like? Will water birds be attracted to the wetter soils? And what can we learn from the history of the peatlands that is stored in these soils?

Bollenveen, Drenthe (photo: Roy van Beek)

Learning from each other’s research

And so the questions pile up, like layers of peat. This is not because we have not learned anything about peat; we actually know an awful lot already. However, we have only just begun searching for the truly-large scale solutions for the long term. Early next year, WUR peat researchers with expertise in soil science, ecology, landscape management, nature management, cultural history and economics will come together. We will seek to further strengthen each other’s research, and find more interfaces between each other’s work. We are in transition, again just as peat is always in transition, right under our very feet, and back through the ages. Peat continues to amaze us.

Read more:

  • Blog: Our soil, the basis of life

Lead image: the Wooldse Veen (photo: Roy van Beek)

By Guido Bakema

DLO Researcher

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