Peat is dead plant material that has accumulated in standing water over thousands of years. Wet oxygen-poor environments prevent the plant material from decomposing into its basic building blocks of carbon dioxide and water. Peatlands act like a giant sponge to retain water and recharge groundwater throughout the summer. They also provide undisturbed habitat for moose, waterfowl and berry-pickers.
Depending on their formation and chemistry, peatlands can be classified as either bogs or fens. Most peatlands on the Kenai are classified as fens because they are nourished by mineral-rich groundwater from the surrounding soil and bedrock, unlike bogs which are nourished primarily by nutrient-poor rainfall. Fens are floristically rich with a variety of mosses, sedges, forbs and shrubs, whereas bogs are primarily Sphagnum peat moss with a few sedges.
Some Alaskan peat has been building up for over 14,000 years and can be as much as 30 feet thick. Throughout that time, the plants have been pulling carbon from the atmosphere to use for growth through photosynthesis. But when the plants die, their carbon gets buried under water and does not return to the atmosphere. This means that peat is keeping carbon out of the atmosphere that might otherwise contribute to climate change.
When peatlands warm and dry, the peat breaks down (oxidizes) and releases carbon to the atmosphere as CO2 and accelerates climate warming in a positive feedback. For this reason, geologists are monitoring peatland degradation worldwide as an added source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Thankfully, the peatlands on the Kenai Peninsula are still mostly intact, although human development and warmer summers are posing an increasing risk of their loss and degradation.
Homer Drawdown chose the Peatland Project in recognition that landscape change and land-use management issues are crucial to the mitigation of global warming.
"Peatlands, also known as bogs or mires, are neither solid ground nor water but something in between. Peat is a thick, mucky substance made up of dead and decomposing plant matter. It develops over hundreds, even thousands of years, as wetland vegetation slowly decays beneath a living layer of flora and in the near absence of oxygen.
Although these unique ecosystems cover just 3 percent of the earth’s land area, they are second only to oceans in the amount of carbon they store—twice that held by the world’s forests, at an estimated 500 to 600 gigatons.
Protecting them through land preservation and fire prevention is a prime opportunity to manage global greenhouse gases. Because peatlands’ typical carbon content is over 50 percent, they become powerful greenhouse chimneys if disrupted.
When peat is exposed to the air, the carbon it contains gets oxidized into carbon dioxide. It can take thousands of years to build up peat, but a matter of only a few to release its greenhouse cache once it is degraded.Luckily, 85 percent of the world’s peatlands are intact.
Though not as effective as halting degradation before it starts, restoring drained and damaged peatlands is an essential complement to protection."
–excerpted from the book, Drawdown