Uncovering the power of peatlands in Canada’s fight against climate change

Waterloo’s Maria Strack explores peatlands as a nature-based solution for carbon sequestration

As we face the global climate change crisis, natural systems, like forests, can help by capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Peatlands, also referred to as bogs, fens, or muskeg, are wetland ecosystems that store large amounts of organic matter in their soil. In fact, peatlands are the world’s largest terrestrial organic carbon stock, and could be a key ally in reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide. But without an urgent plan to protect them, decades of land use changes, and the warming climate itself, are degrading peatlands around the world to the point where we risk turning a natural carbon sink into a potentially huge source of emissions.

A active peat extraction field in central Alberta

A active peat extraction field in central Alberta (photo credit: Miranda Hunter)

In the Canadian context, engineered and nature-based solutions to sequester carbon are key strategies for the country’s progress toward carbon neutrality. Waterloo Professor and Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change (IC3) member, Maria Strack, is an expert in the study of peatlands as a nature-based solution to sequester carbon. Maria asserts that the protection of peatlands is crucial to the success of Canada’s climate goals and our international obligations.

“Canada is home to at least one quarter of all global peatland carbon” explains Maria. “So, Canadians are stewards of this globally valuable carbon stock, and have a responsibility to manage these ecosystems sustainably so that they continue to act as allies in our response to the climate crisis”.

A boardwalk through a fen peatland in central Ontario

A boardwalk through a fen peatland in central Ontario

Maria leads Waterloo’s Wetland Soils & Greenhouse Gas Exchange Lab (WSGGEL) where her team conducts research on the feedbacks between wetlands and climate by investigating greenhouse gas exchange in natural, disturbed and restored peatlands. This work explores 3 critical areas of research: climate change impacts on peatlands and carbon cycling, peat extraction and restoration, and mitigation and reclamation of peatlands disturbed by oil sands mining.

There are many questions remaining around the use of nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change. Maria and her team are using their expertise to address some of these research gaps and advance our knowledge of peatlands for carbon sequestration. This work is fundamental in identifying and understanding the capacity of Canada’s peatlands to support our path to carbon neutrality here at home but also on the international stage.

A former in situ oil sands well pad restored to peatland in northwestern Alberta

A former in situ oil sands well pad restored to peatland in northwestern Alberta

Recognized internationally for her research program, Maria and her team, through the Water Institute, were invited to participate in a research partnership called the Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI), which was established in 2016 at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties meeting in Marrakech, Morocco. Through this initiative, the team is working with international experts and contributing to work that will improve the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of peatlands.

Columns in the greenhouse use to study controls on methane emissions from a fen peatland

Columns in the greenhouse used to study controls on methane emissions from a fen peatland

Scott J. Davidson, a postdoctoral fellow on Maria’s research team, led a Canadian workshop for the GPI, which supported collaboration among Canada’s peatland researchers and initiated the development of a National Assessment of Canadian peatlands.

“Canada is home to a huge variety of peatlands and a wide array of peatland scientists” says Scott. “Their work is as varied as the peatlands they study, ranging from the Arctic to southern Ontario and everywhere in between. Due to this geographical spread, it is not often that peatland researchers get the chance to come together but these workshops allowed for just that. Bringing everyone together in the same ‘virtual’ room to discuss the importance of Canadian peatlands was a great way to generate ideas about how we can work together to protect and conserve these ecosystems.”

Maria and her team are contributing to ground-breaking research on peatlands and their role in sequestering carbon. Working closely with industry, government and non-governmental organizations Maria is uniquely positioned to affect change by translating research findings into improved land management policies and initiatives that have significant impacts in the face of climate change. For example, Maria is a member of the Peatland Ecology Research Group who has worked with Canada’s horticultural peat industry to develop an effective peatland restoration technique that is now being applied across the country and in Europe. Overall, this expertise and applied research are setting the stage for Canada’s leadership in peatland protection and its path to net-zero emissions.

A seismic line through a bog peatland in northwestern Alberta

A seismic line through a bog peatland in northwestern Alberta

Maria Strack is a Professor in the department of Geography and Environmental Management, in Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment. She is a member of the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change (IC3) and Water Institute. Maria is also a Canada Research Chair in Ecosystems and Climate and was named member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists in 2020.

To learn more about Maria’s research please see the following list of resources: