The Congo peatlands in central Africa are the world’s largest tropical peatlands complex, occupying an area of 65,000 square miles, about the size of the entire state of Florida. Peatlands represent a huge store of carbon and therefore are important to the stability of the climate.
A study by scientists at the University of Leeds and University College London found that around the time that Stonehenge was built – about 5,000 years ago – there was an extended drying period in central Congo and the peatlands started emitting carbon dioxide rather than storing it. Over the course of time, the climate in the area got wetter again and over the past 2,000 years, the Congo peatlands have been a place that takes large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere.
The study utilized peat samples taken from beneath remote swamp forests to build a record of the vegetation and rainfall in the central Congo Basin over the past 17,500 years.
In a paper published in Nature, the researchers warn that if modern-day global warming produces extended droughts in the Congo region, history could repeat itself and the peatlands could once again become carbon emitters. If that were to happen, over 30 billion tons of carbon could be released into the atmosphere. That is the equivalent to the total global emissions from fossil fuel burning over a three-year period.
There is some evidence that dry seasons are lengthening in the Congo Basin, but it is unknown if these will continue. In any case, the study reveals that peatlands are more vulnerable than previously thought and need to be protected. They are some of the most wildlife and carbon-rich ecosystems on Earth.
Congo peatlands could release billions of tonnes of carbon
Photo, posted November 5, 2016, courtesy of Roni Ziade / Forest Service via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio