Editorial Feature

Reducing Fire Risks and Emissions with Peatland Restoration

The Wetlands International Russia Programme, also known as Restoring Peatlands Russia Project, is a conservation project organized by not-for-profit organization Wetlands International and financed by KFW, a German development bank on behalf of The Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Building and Nuclear Safety.

peatlands

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Russian Peatland Formation

Peatland is formed over thousands of years from the decomposition of plant remains growing in waterlogged conditions with a low pH value, low nutrients, and low oxygen supply.  

Plants decompose in standing water such as lakes or river margins and areas with consistently high rainfall. This organic matter becomes compacted, leading to a succession of plant communities in a process known as the hydrosere.

Hydrosphere succession first leads to the production of fens, fed by nutrient-rich groundwater and rainwater, then become bogs, fed only by rainfall.

In temperate, boreal, and sub-arctic conditions, including Russia, peat is formed from sphagnum mosses, herbs, shrubs, and small trees.

Russia is covered in approximately 8 percent peatlands, defined as a terrestrial wetland ecosystem. 

Twenty-one percent of Russia is covered in peaty areas, defined as the surface organic layer of decomposing plants in the bog stage of peatland formation.

In total, wetlands and bogs cover around 369.1 M hectares of the land in Russia.

Peat bogs act as one of the most efficient carbon sinks on the planet by taking up carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Although the plant matter is continuously decaying and releasing carbon dioxide, the rate at which the living bog plants take up carbon dioxide during photosynthesis far exceeds the amount being released. Peatlands also release a smaller but potent amount of methane.

Background to Restoring Peatlands in Russia Project

The Restoring Peatlands in Russia project was launched in 2011 in response to a major peatland fire in 2010, which resulted in 50,000 premature deaths from air pollution, which caused lung, respiratory and cardiovascular disease.   

In normal years, the number of Russian forest fires is estimated to be between a few hundred to a few thousand, and very few people die from them.

By comparison, peatland fires create thick choking smoke and smog, so people die due to smoke inhalation, making them extremely dangerous. In Moscow, very near to the 2010 fire, most people wore face masks, and driving anywhere was very difficult due to low visibility.

Causes of Peatland Fires

Spagnum moss is very important in Russia’s peatland formation because it acts like a sponge, retaining vast quantities of water. 

A healthy peat bog almost never catches fire because the mossy ground is water-saturated.  

However, human activity has resulted in peatlands being reclaimed, either for more space to live, recreational purposes, fuel, or economic benefits such as forestry and agriculture.

The land is drained by digging vast drainage ditches, so the peat dries out. Some of it is cut to make garden and horticulture products such as compost mediums, and some of the land is abandoned after use. 

Peat-based compost is an ineffective growing medium, because the peat, which is dead plant matter, has both a low nutrient value and has lost the ability to retain water.

Drained peat is highly flammable. This means a discarded cigarette or careless match, a campfire left unextinguished, lightning strikes, and abandoned extraction sites all make for catastrophic fire events. 

Half a meter deep of peat can burn very quickly because it is so dry.

Tver Region Peat Restoration Process

The Tver region is situated in North West European Russia, covering around half a million hectares. It is a popular tourist destination and contains a vast quantity of peat.

Volunteers at Wetland International, working in close partnership with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation, have started to restore a former 1930s-1940s peat extraction site known as ‘Mochovoe-2’, abandoned when it became unprofitable.

Over 35,000 hectares of peatlands have been re-wetted and restored to prevent fires, but there is still a long way to go. Nonetheless, the project represents the largest ground peatland project in the world.

The restoration process entails restoring natural water channels and soil saturation, which are then damned. These channels fill with rainwater and widen over time, while new moss grows and becomes saturated. Aquatic plants such as reeds, sedges, willow, cattail grass, and other vegetation begin to thrive once more.

As the flora begins to spread, aquatic mammals return, as well as ducks and geese, so overall biodiversity increases.

Climate Change Mitigation & Economic Benefits

Restored Tver peatland is taking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, rather than being expelled through extraction and burning, or accidental fires.

The greenhouse effect, whereby carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which contribute to warming the planet, is thereby reduced.

Emissions reduction is estimated at 175,000 to 220,000 tons CO2 per annum.

Russian mitigation efforts of greenhouse gas emissions help combat climate change and restore biodiversity. Fire risk reduction has a significant impact on the global climate.

Russian authorities, the private sector, and Russian investors support the scaling up of the Tver project in other areas because it has enormous economic advantages and ecological benefits.

Re-wetting peatlands by restoring natural water channels is estimated to be ten times more cost-effective than hydro-technical processes, which rely on artificial approaches to introducing water and blocking ditches.

Twenty million people that are estimated to live near restored peatland are no longer exposed to smoke and smog. Firefighting costs are reduced, real-estate values rise, and tourism increases.

Fast-growing plants that prefer wetter conditions, such as reeds, alder, and willow, can be grown commercially to replace fossil fuels, plastics, and insulation.

Peatland restoration can also be used in carbon-credit trading initiatives.

National and International Approaches to Peatland Management and Conservation

The UN Global Peatlands Initiative is a partnership of 28 leading institutions on peatland conservation, restoration, and sustainable management. It directly supports peatland-rich countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of Congo, Peru, and Indonesia.

The UN initiative is an outcome of the Ramsar (COP13) 2018 Convention of Wetlands, which adopted 25 resolutions for local, national, and international cooperation for sustainable conservation and use of wetlands.

The IUCN UK Peatland Programme was launched in 2014. Much of the UK’s peatland is hugely damaged by over and under-grazing, being over-burnt and being built over. A similar story occurs in most peatland-rich areas around the globe.

The UK has adopted an “Ecosystem Approach’’, based on sustainable development goals, whereby stakeholder interests are aligned with conservation goals and adaptation management.

Because of their dam-building abilities, beavers, considered nature eco-engineers, have been re-introduced to the UK at specially selected sites to help with bog management.

Scotland is trialing new interferometric satellite (InSAR) technology to understand how bogs ‘’breathe’’. It allows scientists to see how land swells and contracts in different climatic conditions over time and ascertain how successful peatland restoration is.

The technology used in peatland restoration frequently uses time-consuming and costly digging ditches and creating damns by blocking them with heather bales, wood, or peat itself.  

Repairing soil erosion manually can be done using specialist machinery such as low ground pressure diggers to avoid compacting the soil or re-turfing as in Cumbria, UK.

The Russia Programme uses natural water channels to re-build the ecosystem. Once re-built and biodiversity increases, the restored ecosystem can essentially manage itself, as long as further human destructive practices are avoided. 

References and Further Reading

Restoring Peatlands in Russia UN Environment Programme (2011-open ended) (Accessed 22.10.2021) https://implementers.decadeonrestoration.org/implementers/40/restoring-peatlands-in-russia-for-fire-prevention-and-climate-change-mitigation

Restoring Peatlands in Russia – for fire prevention and climate change mitigation (11.11.2016) Wetlands International https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZ5qu_nPHYM

International Peatland Society (IPS) https://peatlands.org/peat/peat-formation/

New Techniques for Peatland Restoration (23.02.2017) Forest Research https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/news/new-techniques-for-peatland-restoration/

Forestry and Peatlands Russia (5.10.2021) Centre for Climate Adaptation https://www.climatechangepost.com/russia/forestry-and-peatlands/

Why Peat-Free compost is a good thing (2021) Eco Sustainable Solutions (accessed 23.10.2021) https://www.thisiseco.co.uk/

A growing concern: Peat is bad for the planet – and for plants (06.06.2021 Wong.J) https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/jun/06/peat-a-growing-concern

Restoring Peatlands in Russia / Russia (2021) UN Climate Change (accessed 24.10.2021) https://unfccc.int/climate-action/momentum-for-change/planetary-health/restoring-peatlands-in-russia-i-russia

UK Peatland Restoration demonstrating success (June 2012) IUCN Peatland Programme. https://www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/sites/default/files/header-images/IUCN%20Demonstrating%20Success%20Booklet_UK.pdf

NatureScot research report 1269 – Using peatland surface motion (bog breathing) to Monitor Peatland Action Sites. (2021) Anderson.R, Bradley.A.V, Large.D.J, Marshall,C. (Pdf, accessed 24.10.2021) https://www.nature.scot/doc/naturescot-research-report-1269-using-peatland-surface-motion-bog-breathing-monitor-peatland-action

Global Peatlands Initiative (2016) UN Environment Initiative, Kenya. (Accessed 24.10.2021) https://www.globalpeatlands.org

The Convention on Wetlands and Its Mission (2014) Ramsar (accessed 24.10.2021) https://www.ramsar.org/about/the-convention-on-wetlands-and-its-mission

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Georgie Lyng

Written by

Georgie Lyng

Georgie Lyng is a freelance writer, with a strong interest in environmental issues, a focus on sustainable technologies, climate change science, improving biodiversity, and protection of natural ecosystems. Georgie completed an Open University BSc Environment Studies degree in 2016, enjoys researching environment issues, and writing about the latest scientific developments in the industry and sustainable solutions to help protect the environment.

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