for National Geographic News
Piles of un-decomposed, waterlogged plant material known as peatlands cover about 3 percent of Earth's land and freshwater surface area. But scientists and conservationists are just beginning to fully understand the role of peatlands in the environment.
"Peatlands are relatively little studied compared to other ecosystems, partly because of the difficulty of access due to their high water table and often soft surface," said Faizal Parish, director of the Malaysia-based Global Environment Centre.
The organization maintains an online database that serves as a clearing house of information for the global peatland-conservation community. Peatland studies, Parish added, also suffer from a lack of awareness about their importance and function.
But Harri Vasander, a professor of peatland forestry at the University of Helsinki in Finland, said peatland studies are on the increase.
"Peatlands and peat itself are really important and fascinating," he said. "During the last 15 years we have started to understand better their roles in regulating hydrology and the climate."
What is Peat?
According to Larry Smith, an associate professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, peat is simply layer upon layer of un-decomposed plant material.
"Peat accumulates anywhere in the environment where you have plants growing and forming biomass faster than their remains can be decomposed," he said.
Smith likens a peat bog to a coral reef: Living mosses, sedges, shrubs, and trees lie on a deep bed of un-decomposed, soggy plant matter like living corals on top of a bed of hardened calcium deposits from dead corals.
Peatlands are found on all continents except for Antarctica and from sea level to high altitudes. Northern latitudes are particularly well suited for peat, because decomposition rates are slow in cold, wet environments, Smith said.
Smith's research recently showed that the world's most extensive peatlands are located in the west Siberian lowlands, covering 232,000 square miles (600,000 square kilometers). He is now trying to tease out how these peatlands help govern the mix of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
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