Peat bogs, or peatlands as they are also known, are widespread throughout northern boreal and arctic regions, and they store a significant amount of carbon in the soil. Scientists around the world are actively engaged in determining exactly how much carbon they contain; it’s a question that’s regarded as increasingly relevant as the warming climate threatens to cause more decomposition in these peat bogs, and more carbon to leak into the atmosphere as a result.
This concern is a driving factor in the work being done by Rusack Professor of Environmental Studies and Earth and Oceanographic Science Phil Camill and his colleagues. Camill, along with other researchers from Bowdoin College as well as St. Olaf College, Trinity College, and the Science Museum of Minnesota, have been collecting and analyzing samples from the peatlands of north-central Canada.
In 2008-2009, they spent two summers doing field work in northern Manitoba—an area described as the Canadian low Arctic. “It’s also not that far from the city of Churchill, which is known as the polar bear capital of the world,” noted Camill, “although I’m happy to say we didn’t see any on these trips.”
They spent their days collecting core samples from peat bogs and from the mud at the bottom of lakes. Using various coring devices, Camill and team extracted peat as deep as about a meter and a half, he said. “This provided us with evidence going back almost 9,000 years, which in geological terms is around the time the glacial ice receded and these peatlands began forming.”
The peatlands in this region, he explained, are unlike the vast peat landscapes of the North in that they occur in small pockets in low-lying depressions, and are only about thirty meters (one hundred feet) in diameter. They have also been understudied, said Camill, and this is what makes the research his team has been doing so valuable.
“Large-scale remote-sensing efforts to classify peatland extent across the Arctic may miss some of these areas, and, consequently, we may be underestimating the amount of carbon that’s out there. All of which feeds into this much bigger question of how much carbon could get released into the atmosphere if the warming climate causes the material in these peat bogs to deteriorate faster.”
Camill et al. have been ploughing through a mountain of data, and they still have a lot more to analyze, but earlier this summer, they published a paper incorporating this research in the Journal of Geophysical Research–Biogeosciences. Several more papers are to follow, said Camill.