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On this week’s activity page:

  1. Introduction
  2. What is peat and where is it found?
  3. Why is Peat important?
  4. Global Warming and Peat
  5. What do we use peat for?
  6. Peat in the Broads National Park
  7. This Week’s Activities
  8. Useful Links

 

1. Introduction

Welcome to Week 2 of our WMM Education activities. As the global lockdown caused by Coronavirus has led to incredible cuts in carbon emissions, 18% in China and 50% in Europe, we thought this would be the perfect time to talk about peat! Twice as much carbon is stored in peatlands than the world’s rainforests and it underlies 30% of the Broads National Park.

Figure 1 – Global Distribution of Peatlands

This week is also International Mother Earth Day (22 April) so we’re raising awareness of the need to protect peatlands and prevent their carbon stores being released into the atmosphere adding to the global warming crisis. World Penguin Day (25 April) fits in because, with less global warming the ice caps won’t melt and the penguins will still have their homes and, this is where you come in, World Creativity and Innovation Day (21 April) gives you the chance to help Medieval peat diggers keep their peat pits water free…

2. What is peat and where is it found?

Peat occurs throughout the world and is a type of soil, rich in organic matter, that forms in very wet areas, marshes, fens, bogs, swamps, where there is a lot of vegetation. As plants die they fall into the water where they fail to fully decompose due to low oxygen levels and few decomposing organisms. This layer of semi decomposed vegetation is added to each year, getting thicker and thicker and more compressed ultimately forming the carbon rich soil – peat.

Figure 2 – A Chunk of Peat

The peatlands in the Broads National Park have formed in alkaline conditions due to much of the water in the region filtering though the underlying chalk. This creates alkaline fenland habitat rather than the acidic peat bog habitat of Scotland and Ireland. In the Broads, peat is estimated to form at a rate of 2.7mm/year and can be over to 10m deep in some areas.

3. Why is Peat important?

Peat is important for a number of reasons – biodiversity, flood defence and as a carbon store. Today we’re focusing on the importance of peat as a carbon store. It is estimated that the amount of carbon stored in the world’s remaining peatlands is 550 billion tonnes. There’s no way we want all that stored carbon released into the atmosphere adding to the crisis!! It’s best it remains safely locked away underwater and underground in our peatlands.

Figure 3 – Lowland Fen

It is estimated there is 40 million tonnes of carbon stored in the Broads National Park peatlands.  If burnt or dried out that would emit the same amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as 38 coal power stations do each year.

To understand just how carbon moves through ecosystems and how it becomes “locked away” and stored, have a look at this YouTube video.

4. Global Warming and Peat

Most people know that burning fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – increases the levels of carbon dioxide, CFCs and other pollutants in our atmosphere leading to global warming. But how many people know that when peat is burnt it also releases the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as these fossil fuels? The increase in the overall temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere caused by global warming results in a number of environmental problems around the world, not least the melting of the ice caps.

5. What do we use peat for?

Throughout history people have used peat, like wood, as something to burn to cook on and heat their homes etc. It is dug up out of the wet marshy land and laid out to dry where it hardens, before being burnt. Power stations can also be fuelled by peat – Ireland still has three of these in operation. More recently peat has also been dug up to be made into the compost we all buy at garden centres and supermarkets. Peatlands, especially low lying ones, are also drained to make way for agriculture – just think of the Fens in Lincolnshire – or for humans to build on.

By digging the peat up, to burn, or use as compost, or by draining it, the peat’s organic matter (partially decomposed vegetation from thousands of years ago) is exposed to air, decomposers and heat and breaks down releasing the stored carbon into the atmosphere.

Figure 4 – Modern Peat Digging in Lower Saxony, Germany.

Figure 5 – Modern Peat Field, Lower Saxony, Germany.

6. Peat in the Broads National Park:

Making of the Broads

Ironically, the 63 broads (lakes) that give the National Park its name are in fact the flooded pits and “quarries” left behind from Medieval peat diggings! This was proved from extensive surveys conducted by Dr Joyce Lambert in the 1950’s.

Figure 6 – Dr Joyce Lambert on Rockland Broad

Peat was dug out of the ground by hand using a variety of different shaped shovels and spades and was done on an industrial scale. Take some time to look at a map or google earth to see the size of Hickling Broad and Barton Broad. The peat was then air dried before being hauled by boat or horse and cart to Norwich and the other towns and villages for sale. It is estimated that 25 million cubic metres of peat was dug out of the broads. Just imagine how much carbon was released into the atmosphere when all that peat was burnt!

Figure 7 – Peat Diggers

Figure 8 – Hand tools to cut peat.

Once abandoned, the peat pits flooded as sea and groundwater levels rose, forming the lakes that we know of as the Broads today. These in turn became home, through time, to some of Britain’s most remarkable wildlife.

Figure 9 – Barton Broad

Biodiversity

The peat in the Broads National Park underlies the biodiversity that is found in the fen, grazing and reed bed habitats. Plants adapted to growing in the conditions created by peat soils flourish and in turn provide food and habitat for a range of animals. Peat is able to absorb and retain huge amounts of water, a bit like a sponge, and ensures that even in the driest of summers water is still available to the plants and animals that live on it.

Key Message

Peatlands, like those in the Broads National Park, need our protection from being:

  • Dug up to burn or use as compost for our gardens.
  • Drained for agriculture or development.

You can help by:

  • Thinking of the melting ice caps (and all those homeless penguins!) and start spreading the word about the importance of protecting peatlands to keep their huge store of carbon out of our atmosphere.

 

  • Make a pledge to buy Peat Free Compost (it works just as well) at garden centres and supermarkets. Peat Free compost makes use of ingredients that don’t cause habitat destruction and Global Warming. Or make your own Peat Free Compost!

 

  • No space for a compost bin? Then see if you can recycle your food and garden waste through your local council. Food and garden waste that is sent to landfill rots and releases methane – a harmful greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

 

  • It is possible to generate money from peatlands without draining them. Why are we importing reed from China when we can grow it in the Broads? Look out for and support our local reed cutters and thatchers.

 

7. This Week’s Activities

  1. Peat, fire and carbon dioxide.
  2. Be creative and stop the flooding!
  3. Make your own Peat Free Compost
  4. How many penguins can you see today?

Download this week’s activity sheet here

Watch the video for Activity 3 here:

Other handy links for Activity 3:

Make the Most of Compost Video

A Compost Bin Project

Eco Friendly Kids – A Kid’s Guide to Composting

 

Follow the link here for Zooniverse – Penguin Watch in Acitvity 4

 

8. Useful Links:

  • Have a look at this info sheet if you would like to know more about Dr Joyce Lambert’s work in the Broads National Park.

 

 

  • This Green House Gas calculator is “fun” to see what the enormous numbers associated with carbon dioxide emissions actually mean in real terms!

 

  • Want to find out more about composting, need help getting started, just confused? Then the Garden Organic Master Composter site is for you. It includes access to volunteers in Norfolk and Suffolk to help you start up or improve your home composting.

 

  • Fancy exploring the characteristics of peat in more depth or finding out much more about peat in the Broads National Park? Have a read of the Broads Authority’s “For Peat’s Sake” Education Pack.

 

  • Click on the logo below to check out CANAPE (Creating a New Approach to Peatland Ecosystems) a European Union and European Regional Development Funded Project delivered by the Broads Authority.