Thousands of years’ worth of carbon stored in Indonesia’s peat forests is being released at an alarming rate as a result of deforestation, a new study by UK scientists shows.
In the paper “Deep instability of deforested tropical peatlands revealed by fluvial organic carbon fluxes,” published online in Thursday’s edition of the journal Nature, the researchers noted that tropical peatlands “contain one of the largest pools of terrestrial organic carbon,” amounting to about 89 billion tons.
“Approximately 65 percent ... is in Indonesia, where extensive anthropogenic [man-made] degradation in the form of deforestation, drainage and fire are converting it into a globally significant source of atmospheric [CO2],” the paper says.
“We measured carbon losses in channels draining intact and deforested peatlands, and found it is 50 percent higher from deforested swamps, compared to intact swamps,” Sam Moore, the lead author of the study and former Open University PhD student, said in a press release.
“Dissolved organic carbon released from intact swamps mainly comes from fresh plant material, but carbon from the deforested swamps is much older — centuries to millennia — and comes from deep within the peat column.”
The researchers said that carbon emissions from deforested peat swamps “may be larger than previously thought.”
“Carbon dating shows that the additional carbon lost from deforested swamps comes from peat which had been securely stored for thousands of years. Carbon lost from the drainage systems of deforested and drained peatlands is often not considered in ecosystem exchange carbon budgets, but the research team found it increased the estimated total carbon loss by 22 percent,” they said.
“[W]ater falling as rain would normally leave the ecosystem through transpiration in vegetation, but deforestation forces it to leave through the peat, where it dissolves fossil carbon on its way.”
Vincent Gauci, the paper’s corresponding author and a senior lecturer in earth systems and ecosystem science at The Open University, attributed the loss of stored carbon to increased agriculture, especially for oil palms.
“Ancient carbon is being dissolved out of Asian peatlands as they are increasingly turned over to agriculture to meet global demands for food and biofuels,” he said.
“This has led to a large increase in carbon loss from Southeast Asian rivers draining peatland ecosystems — up by 32 percent over the last 20 years, which is more than half the entire annual carbon loss from all European peatlands. The destruction of the Asian peat swamps is a globally significant environmental disaster, but unlike deforestation of the Amazon, few people know that it is happening.”