According to Parish, peatlands around the world store 25 to 30 percent of all the carbon in terrestrial ecosystems and regulate the flow of water.
"Peatlands store significant amounts of fresh water and release it to maintain groundwater and surface-water supplies. Peatlands also absorb water during heavy rainfall and release it slowly to rivers, playing a role in flood control," he said.
In Malaysia and other tropical regions, Parish said peatlands are home to more than 1,500 plant species and 150 fish species. In more northern latitudes the variety of species is less, but the peatlands serve as an important refuge during periods of climate instability.
Scientists estimate about 80 percent of the world's peatlands are relatively intact, primarily in North America and Siberia. However, they are under increasing pressure from human activities, especially in populated regions of Europe and the tropics.
"They have been wastelands and people have wanted to change them to productive lands," Vasander said.
For hundreds of years peatlands have been drained to make room for agriculture. In the last 30 years, Parish said, the pace of peatland destruction has accelerated, primarily to meet the needs of the timber and pulp and paper industries.
For example, in northern Finland, 14 million acres (5.7 million hectares) of peatlands have been drained for forestry to increase tree growth on peat, Parish said.
"In the tropics the naturally forested peatlands have been badly degraded by extensive drainage as part of operations to extract the timber," he added.
Peatlands are also harvested for use by gardeners as potting soil, and in some parts of the world peat is mined to burn as a fuel.
"This is a very intensive way of using peatlands, but the percentage worldwide is quite small," Vasander said. "There are, however, countries like Finland and Ireland, which use a lot of peat for energy. In Finland, the share of peat is 6 to 7 percent of the country's total energy consumption."
Smith said he and his colleagues used Russian maps drawn up for potential peat mining operations to calculate the extent of peatlands in the western Siberian lowlands. The Russians never mined the Siberian peat; they went for the oil and natural gas beneath it.
According to Smith, the rush to extract the oil and natural gas beneath the vast peatlands of Siberia is spurring a fledgling conservation movement.
"There are concerns among Russians scientists about their pristine ecology being damaged. But [the peatlands] are huge, and nothing is going to stop the economy of the area," he said.
At the global scale, however, the peatland-conservation movement is picking up steam, Parish said. For example, an action plan for peatland conservation is being developed under the Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. The convention is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.
"In those areas where [peatlands] have become rare, people start to understand [peatlands'] different functions and values," Vasander said. "But still, in many places they are considered to be wastelands, and the conversion continues."
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