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Peat Fires Adding to Carbon Problem

Jan 07, 2015 01:55 PM EST

Peat fires are a topic that few scientists focus on, but new research shows that they may play a more important part than people realize, adding to the ever-complicated carbon problem.

Peat consists of dead plant debris that piles up over time, blanketing the ground in ecosystems ranging from the tropics to the Arctic. While they are helpful in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere to build their biomass, if a fire were to ignite these thick plant layers, it would release all the carbon they hold. Not to mention that peat fires can burn for days or weeks on end, even in considerably wet conditions, producing a lot of harmful smoke in the process.

"We know fires serve as a major source of human mortality globally," researcher Merritt Turetsky, from the University of Guelph, said in a statement. For example, peat fires can trigger asthma and other respiratory problems, on top of worsening air quality in general.

"We are starting to understand that peat fires cause some of the most extreme air quality issues, but in general they are poorly understood," he added.

Human activity like clearing lands for agricultural purposes significantly dries out peat, making them more susceptible to damaging wildfires, and this activity is only expected to increase. Peatlands store carbon from thousands of years of plant activity, so it's no surprise that when they ignite they add to the already concerning carbon problem.

"Smoldering peat fires already are the largest fires on Earth in terms of their carbon footprint," said Professor Guillermo Rein of Imperial College London, who was involved in the study.

"These types of fires have different impacts on ecosystems, and traditional fire management techniques will not be effective in combating peat fires. We need new tools to deal with these issues," she added.

What's even more worrisome is that future climate change may make peatlands more vulnerable to drying and burning, essentially adding further to climate change and creating a vicious cycle.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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