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Not a funny matter – draining peatlands may release a lot of harmful laughing-gas

Posted March 30, 2018

Peatlands are extremely fertile. If drained they can become very profitable and so a lot of peatlands are a target for artificial draining. However, scientists are warning against such practices. A new research from the University of Birmingham and the University of Tartu revealed that draining peatlands may result in huge greenhouse laughing-gas emissions.

Peatlands contain a huge portion of Earth’s soil nitrous oxide. Image credit: Steve F via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There is nothing funny about the laughing-gas – it is nitrous oxide, which contributes to global warming and destruction of the ozone layer. Scientists took a closer look at various peatlands around the globe – this research included locations in the United States, Australia, Brazil, South America, Australia, New Zealand, East Africa, Southeast Asia, Siberia and Europe. Researchers say that peatlands actually contain somewhere around 10 % of the world’s soil nitrogen. When peatlands are drained for cultivation, nitrous oxide is released into the atmosphere. That is why scientists are arguing against such practices and for more thoughtful preservation of fens and swamps.

People who drain peatlands make situation even worse by irrigating these lands. This releases even more nitrous oxide – the more laughing-gas is exhausted out of these peatlands, the more aggressive climate change will become. Irrigating lands that have been drained seems counter-intuitive, but it is done all the time in the tropical regions. The key to cultivating former peatlands is calculating when they should be wet and when they should be dry for the best yield. Furthermore, each case is different – it is difficult to predict how the soil in peatlands is going to react to cultivation in terms of laughing-gas emissions.

This new research, involving 37 experts from 24 research institutions, is helping make more accurate predictions by creating a model, which takes soil nitrate concentration, water content and temperature into account. Dr. Jaan Pärn, lead author of the study, said: “Our findings show that artificial drainage will be the primary driver of future changes in laughing gas emission from organic soils. This effect will be more pronounced in tropical regions leading to more nitrous oxide emitted to the atmosphere”.

Solving this problem is rather simple – you just have to leave peatlands alone. However, they are just too profitable and too fertile for people to leave them be. Hopefully, scientists have created a model, which will help to accurately assess the future of peatland cultivation.

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