Carbon legacy goes up in smoke

It reads like a movie script – ash falling from the sky, thick smoke shutting down airports and businesses, road closures trapping remote northern villages. But this is not from a script; rather, it is study involving the University of Leicester of what could happen through peat burning.

In an international paper, 'Global vulnerability of peatlands to fire and carbon loss', released in the January edition of the journal Nature Geoscience, the researchers, including Professor Susan Page (pictured) from the Department of Geography, focus on fires that burn through thick layers of peat (dead plant debris) that blanket the ground in ecosystems ranging from the tropics to the arctic - and when burning produces a lot of smoke.

Professor Page said: "Tropical peatlands are highly resistant to natural fires, but in recent decades, humans have drained peatlands for plantation agriculture. People cause the deep layers of peat to dry out, and also greatly increase the number of fire ignitions. It's a double threat."

This causes a host of problems, including health issues, airport and school closures, and political tensions.

The paper concludes that almost all peat-rich regions will become more susceptible to drying and burning with a changing climate.

Peatlands store a large amount of carbon due to thousands of years of plant activity. When peat burns, carbon is released into the atmosphere.