Peatlands

Zicheng Yu Explores the Potential Role of Peat Bogs in Stemming the Tide of Global Climate Change

Peatlands, found in both arctic and tropical climates, can help reduce carbon accumulation in the atmosphere.

Story by

Tim Hyland

Photography by

Zicheng Yu

In the scientific community, at least, of this there is no doubt: The world is steadily getting warmer, and as that warming continues, a growing number of threats will imperil environments, species and people living the world over. 

But even as that stark reality of climate change is now considered settled science, a great many new questions about the fast-changing dynamics facing our planet are being asked—and as new answers are found, a clearer picture of what the future holds for our environment is pieced together. For Zicheng Yu, one small piece of that complex picture can be found in some of the most remote and desolate places on Earth.

Peatlands, also known as peat bogs, are a type of wetland formed by incompletely decomposed organic matter and water. These unique environments, which are found in both arctic and tropical climates, are considered “carbon sinks” because they absorb carbon from the atmosphere. This is important, obviously, because carbon dioxide, created by burning fossil fuels, is understood to be a leading cause of Earth’s warming climate.

Through his work, Yu is working to understand just how much peatlands can help mitigate carbon in the atmosphere, how their role has changed throughout geological history, and whether or not that role can be expected to change as the world grows ever warmer going forward. 

“We travel to different parts of the world in order to understand the processes, or climate space, of peat distribution and dynamics,” Yu says.

Peatlands and sea with snowy mountains

Peatlands are considered “carbon sinks” because they absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Understanding those dynamics is essential, Yu says, because peatlands stand as one of the planet’s most stout defenses against atmospheric carbon accumulation. As he notes, while peatlands can be found on just 3 percent of the planet's land area, they capture and hold more than a third of the earth’s entire soil-based organic carbon load. And as Yu’s work shows, in the years to come the power of peatlands to suck carbon out of the atmosphere may actually expand.

Working in collaboration with an international research team, Yu recently conducted a study of global peatland coverage through the last interglacial-glacial cycle—approximately 130,000 years ago to the present. Using a newly compiled database of 1,063 stratigraphic records of peat deposits, the team discovered that northern peatlands expanded during warm periods, and were buried during periods of cooling, or glacial advance. This finding was important, as it confirmed that peatlands can be expected to grow in the decades to come. 

“As peatlands in subarctic and boreal regions have played an oversized role in regulating the global carbon cycle and consequently global climate in the last several thousands of years, we expect that these potentially expanding peat in the Arctic would be significant for regional and global carbon cycle and climate,” Yu says. “If the current and future climate are really favorable for peat formation and expansion, then yes, the peat expansion would be a major positive factor to reduce the magnitude of global warming.”

Though this work suggests strongly that peatlands can be expected to help reduce the greenhouse effect, Yu cautions that much more work must be completed in order to fully understand the impact of peatlands on the broader global environment. 

His early 2019 trip to the Antarctic, for example, allowed him and his team to explore the carbon-collection power of so-called “peatbanks,” peat-forming ecosystems that are distinct in many ways from their boggy peatland cousins. And going forward, he expects to expand his exploration of peat to include all manner of peat-friendly environments, including the high-altitude peaks of the Andes Mountains and the Tibetan Plateau. These mountaintops, he says, are “the third pole of the world,” and understanding how peatlands have existed through the ages in those environments is essential as he continues to build a full understanding of peat’s power to stave off global climate change. 

“All these poles are the frontiers of ongoing and future climate change,” Yu says, “and we want to find the telltale of its impact on ecosystems and carbon balance.”

This story originally appeared as "The Power of Peatlands" in the 2019 Lehigh Research Review.

Story by

Tim Hyland

Photography by

Zicheng Yu

Related Stories

Professor Zicheng Yu

130,000 Years of Data Show Peatlands Store Carbon Long-Term

First study of the extent of global peatland and carbon storage over the last 130,000 years fills in key knowledge gap, affirms peatlands’ effectiveness as a long-term carbon storage mechanism over a long timescale

Peat Expansion in the Arctic Tundra Could Play a Role in Cooling a Warming Planet

The National Science Foundation has awarded Professor Zicheng Yu a grant to study the rapidly changing Arctic and track the dynamics of peatlands as part of one of its ten “Big Ideas” for scientists to tackle.

Ken Kodama Delivers Bullard Lecture at AGU Conference

Lehigh geophysicist discusses the significance of magnetism in sedimentary rock deposits.