Restoring peatlands to help fight climate change

Friday, March 9, 2018

One of Canada’s greatest natural resources doesn’t need mining or refining, it just needs researchers to help us leave it alone.

Maria Strack
The true north strong and free. It’s a well-worn phrase evoking soaring mountains, verdant forests, rocky coasts and golden plains. But Canada also has a massive wet, marshy, boggy, ignored landscape known as peatlands. They may not have made it into our national anthem, but according to Water Institute member and professor in Waterloo's Department of Geography and Environmental Management, Maria Strack, they could be one of Canada’s secret weapon to fight climate change.  

Much justifiable hand wringing about oil and gas production centres on the CO2 pumped into the atmosphere when that oil and gas is burned by cars and industry. Likewise the process of getting to those resources, tearing up acres of peatlands, has a massive impact CO2 emissions. Together they’re a destructive one-two punch for the environment. 

“Peatland disturbance, particularly drainage can result in large emissions of soil carbon,” explains Strack, a Canada Research Chair in Ecosystem and Climate. “This means we’re actually creating a large additional source of CO2 emissions. The decomposition of the peat soil can release millions of tonnes of CO2, but even worse, drainage makes these sites extra susceptible to fires and this can result in emissions on the scale of fossil fuels.”

Strack says it is often surprising to Canadians that 12 per cent of the country is covered by peatlands. Canada is a big country, so we actually have the second highest area of peatlands in the world – nearly 1.1 million square kilometers. It’s possible that a whopping 160 billion tonnes of carbon is stored in these soils. If this were released as carbon dioxide, the total mass would be over 585 billion tonnes. That’s roughly 15 years worth of all the oil and gas burned by humans.

Maria StrackIn Canada it’s unlikely all of this carbon will be released, but expanding resource extraction in the north is impacting larger and larger areas of peatlands, and the effect could be globally, or at least nationally, significant. “We need to think about these land-use GHG emissions when making decisions about the sustainability of our land management and resource extraction choices,” Strack says. 

Getting data in GHG and land-use emissions isn’t simple. It involves hours spent knee-deep in mud and dirt and swarms of insects. That dedication is worth recognizing on its own, but what makes Strack’s research valuable of a Canada Research Chair is her capacity to include the social dimension by building a transdisciplinary bridge between this raw data and the behaviour of human-led governments, corporations and organizations impacting the peatlands. 

Being a Canada Research Chair gives Strack the valuable opportunity to reach out to a greater diversity of stakeholders, learn about the variety of challenges they face with peatland management and restoration, and share ideas across industries. 

“Being a Canada Research Chair also enables me to train more students, developing the next generation of researchers and practitioners to continue developing and implementing peatland restoration techniques, critically evaluate outcomes and inform policy on wetland management,” she says.

Inspiring students to making an impact on a part of our environment that is woefully misunderstood considering its significance comes easy to a naturally curious mind like Strack’s.

“I’ve been fascinated by wetlands since I was a child. I’m not quite sure why, but I think they seemed mysterious to me,” says Strack, “Peatlands are incredibly complicated but elegant. Add to this that they are a globally significant store of carbon, the fate of which is important for understanding future climates. That’s what got me hooked.”

Another benefit of working on an environmental problem at the intersection of social and natural science is seeing her work actually make a difference. If you want to get into an argument at Thanksgiving, bring up the economic and environmental trade-off of oil and gas production in Canada. Strack isn’t interested in debates, she’s working towards solutions. 

Maria Strack“Methods are in place that value soil carbon,” she wrote in a recent piece for World Wetlands Day. “Farmers can be paid for reducing tillage, a practice that helps to keep more carbon in agricultural soils. International pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has started to set the dollar value for carbon in Canada. The federal government has mandates that all provinces set a price for carbon that must rise to at least $50 per tonne by 2022. Placing this value on Canada's wetland soil carbon stocks would make them worth $29 trillion.”

It’s an economic argument that still hasn’t taken hold. People, including top economists, are still tuned to seeing value in what we can extract, not what we can leave in place. Until we transition to renewable energy sources, Strack and her colleagues in the Faculty of Environment work tirelessly to restore a massive landscape disturbed by oil and gas production.

“We focus a lot in my research group of how disturbance affects peatland function and then developing and evaluating restoration techniques,” Strack says. “Those sites that have been effectively restored is what makes me proud. To come to a site that was previously a bare field or an old oil well pad and see it transformed into a functioning peatland ecosystem is an incredible feeling.”