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When the 2016 Horse River Fire began making its run toward Fort McMurray, wildfire fighters were shocked by its severity and speed. The region, once dominated by wet peatlands, had been drained to make way for a tree-planting experiment. As water was diverted, thick layers of peat—dominated by sphagnum moss, which can hold up to twenty-six times its dry weight in moisture—disappeared or were badly degraded. Thirsty, flammable stands of black spruce took over. The fire tore through the tinderbox of trees. “The Beast,” as the wildfire was famously called, forced the evacuation of 88,000 people, at the last minute, through thick smoke and flying embers. While a natural peatland may not have halted the fire, it would have slowed or tempered the blaze.
It was a classic example of unintended consequences—in this case, born from underestimating nature’s genius. Canada holds between a quarter and a third of the world’s peatlands, including acidic bogs and more alkaline fens as well as swamps and marshes. They can be found across the country, from British Columbia to the Northwest Territories to Nova Scotia, growing many metres deep into the ground. Due to their density of decomposed or decomposing plant material, one square metre of peatland in northern Canada holds approximately five times the amount of carbon as one square metre of tropical rainforest in the Amazon. But the country’s peatlands have been so degraded by the construction of mines and hydroelectric dams, by oil-and-gas developments, and by urban expansion that we are losing an ecosystem crucial to the prevention of natural disasters such as forest fires—as well as destroying a key mitigator of climate change.
Peatlands have long been maligned. People have called swamp gases that glow at night “corpse candles,” “will-o’-the-wisps,” and “jack-o’-lanterns”—named for a man who, the story goes, sold his soul to the devil and was condemned to walk the bogs at night, carrying a lamp. For centuries, bogs around North America were drained to create agricultural lands; cut out of the earth, dried, and burned as fuel; or destroyed simply because bogs were believed to cause ill health in those who lived nearby. Into the twentieth century, doctors attributed malaria, cholera, and various chills and fevers to the miasma that emanates from these soggy lands.
Today, peat has become big business. Canada produces 1.3 million tonnes of peat annually, primarily by cutting it out of the ground in Quebec, New Brunswick, and the Prairie provinces. The country is also the world’s top exporter of peat, much of which is used as a soil additive by gardeners and farmers. Yet, despite peat’s economic value, cities and utility companies across the country often face few repercussions for draining or degrading vast peatlands for residential developments, the construction of seismic lines and well pads, and the mining of bitumen—even though the federal government and some provinces demand that these projects don’t negatively affect wetland functionality. In the Hudson Bay Lowlands, which are the second-largest contiguous peatlands in the world, the so-called Ring of Fire—approximately 13,000 active mining claim units held by eighteen companies and individuals—threatens to release massive amounts of carbon from approximately 325,000 square kilometres of peatland. In Labrador, not only will the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project inundate and destroy peatlands, but its transmission lines will slice through 1,731 fens and bogs. In an environmental impact statement, Nalcor Energy (now under Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro) claimed that “it is not practical” to assess the functional value of these peatlands.
It may not be practical for companies to consider, but the degradation of peatlands will mean the loss of the many virtues these ecosystems offer. Peat is the filter that separates microbes and contaminants from the water that most Canadians drink. In the 1980s, botanist William Niering challenged the prevailing view that peaty fens and bogs were waterlogged wastelands by calling them the kidneys of the landscape—a crucial organ of our environment. Peat also acts as a giant sponge, absorbing moisture when mountain rivers swell and flood their banks, as Alberta’s Elbow and Bow Rivers did, catastrophically, in 2013. The worst flood in Calgary’s history was so damaging because most of the peatlands in and around the city that might have sopped up some of the water had been drained to make way for residential developments. The flood would have been worse had alpine forests and intact peatlands, like the Sibbald fen, upstream in the Rocky Mountains, not held back as much water as they did.
In Canada, a small cadre of scientists has become masters at accumulating peat in degraded fens and bogs, such as the one in the Lac Saint-Jean region of Quebec. In the 1990s, Johnson & Johnson extracted from the area to produce a peat-based sanitary pad that was sold in eighty-five countries. When the company shut down the operation as its environmental messaging began to fail, it turned to peatland ecologist Line Rochefort, a former student of Dale Vitt, one of the first to successfully restore a fen in Canada.
Growing peat on land where the top layers have been extracted is not that complicated. It begins with what Rochefort describes as “building the basement before slapping on bricks and wood.” Mosses are the cement she uses to build the foundation of that basement: sphagnum for bogs, brown mosses for fens. “Once you have the foundation for the basement in place,” she says, “the rest will come.” The rest includes edible mushrooms and wild blueberries, rare moths and butterflies, carnivorous orchids, woodland caribou, tree-climbing turtles, and countless more ecological features. Peat takes time to accumulate—as much time as a tree growing to maturity—but it keeps growing steadily while trees eventually slow down. And, unlike trees, which become vulnerable with age, peat layers that grow to depths of more than twenty-five centimetres become increasingly resilient to disease, drought, and fire due to their high moisture content and low levels of oxygen for bacteria to grow.
Rochefort has been involved in restoring more than 1,200 hectares in over 100 peatlands across North America, at a cost of between $3,500 and $4,000 per hectare. Planting trees tends to be slightly cheaper, in the range of $1,800 to $3,000 per hectare, but a typical replanted forest in Canada stores far less carbon. As more peatlands are lost, the vast stores of carbon within them are released: the amount of carbon that returned to the atmosphere as a result of the Horse River Fire, according to the FireWork air-quality forecast model, exceeded the carbon put out by both vehicles and industrial activity in Alberta throughout 2016.
While campaigning for reelection in 2019, prime minister Justin Trudeau pledged that 2 billion trees would be planted over the next decade—part of a federal goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In effect, every tree would count against the country’s emissions. While maintaining Canada’s forested lands undoubtedly helps capture and store atmospheric carbon, there was no mention of peatland—a more effective way to both buffer the erratic effects of climate change and reach the net-zero goal.
Other countries are taking a different approach. Russia is investing heavily in restoring its peatlands to slow the runaway wildfire crisis that is causing so much carbon emission and air pollution. China has spent even more to restore peatlands in Sichuan province’s massive Zoigê Wetland—approximately twice the size of Prince Edward Island—in an effort to conserve the water that hundreds of millions of people living downstream depend on. In the United States, the Fish and Wildlife Service is aggressively rewetting peatlands in the Great Dismal Swamp and the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, in the country’s southeast, to protect endangered species and as a bulwark against rising sea levels and saltwater intrusions. And, in the United Kingdom and parts of Scandinavia, in order to meet climate change mitigation goals, grants and generous tax incentives are encouraging companies to remove trees that had once been planted for timber on former bogs and fens. The UK plans to ban the use of peat in gardens by 2024 as part of a bigger effort to combat climate change by maintaining its peatlands.
The Trudeau government remained committed to its 2 billion trees pledge even as the cost ballooned to $3.16 billion. Single-species planted forests hold inherent and increasing risks: no one really knows which species of tree is best adapted to various climate change scenarios that will likely result in more drought, wildfire, and ecological disease. Mosses such as sphagnum are much more resilient. They grow over vascular plants, like ferns, by taking up positively charged ions, such as calcium and ammonium, while releasing hydrogen ions that acidify the water and soil. As long as there is sufficient moisture, mosses will grow upward and outward, periodically shooting out capsules that contain hundreds of thousands of spores no more than several microns in diameter—expanding and spreading on their own.
Still, tree planting can seem a more glamorous way to mitigate climate change, with an obviously positive outcome that most Canadians have come to appreciate when driving or hiking through forests across the country. A fen, bog, swamp, or marsh is much more difficult for people to value. Peatlands burble and smell and appear to suck up anything that falls into them—all the while doing quiet work to slow wildfires, temper floods, and store carbon as a humble buffer for a changing world.