(MENAFN – The Conversation)
The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is preparing to auction a series of oil drilling licenses in the Congo Basin. This threatens to damage around 11 million hectares of the world’s second largest rainforest.
But it’s not just trees that could be lost in the search for oil. Our new study, published in Nature Geoscience, shows that at least three of the 16 proposed oil licenses scheduled for sale on July 28, 2022 overlap with sensitive peat swamp forests, which store even more carbon below ground in their soils. than the trees above.
Regularly flooded peat swamp forests hold so much carbon because waterlogging slows the decomposition of dead plants. This partially decomposed material accumulates over thousands of years to form peat. We have provided the first detailed map of how deep this peat is, and where exactly in the Congo Basin all the carbon in it is.
Central Congo peatlands highlighted in green. Crezee et al. (2022), Author provided
Our results confirm that the central Congo peatlands are the largest complex of tropical peatlands in the world. We estimate that peatlands cover 16.7 million hectares, an area equivalent to the size of England and Wales combined, about 15% more than the 14.6 million hectares estimated during the first mapping of this ecosystem in 2017.
Read more: How we discovered the world’s largest tropical peat bog, deep in the Congo jungle
When we overlaid our new peatland map over a map of oil claims, we discovered that the upcoming sale of exploration rights for fossil fuels includes nearly a million hectares of peat swamp forests. If roads, pipelines and other infrastructure needed to extract oil are destroyed by building, we estimate that up to 6 billion tonnes of CO₂ could be released, equivalent to 14 years of emissions. greenhouse gases in the UK.
Scientists are only just beginning to understand these ecosystems, including their role as huge carbon reservoirs that act as a buffer against rising global temperatures. But if the oil companies get the go-ahead on July 28, our maps and other documents could be all that’s left to prove that intact peat swamp forests once existed in the Congo Basin.
Until now, no evidence of such peatlands in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been published in a scientific journal. Although their existence has long been suspected, it was not until 2017 that scientists first mapped the country’s peatlands using field data from neighboring Republic of Congo (RC). They predicted that two-thirds of the largest tropical peatlands in the world resided in the DRC, which had not been verified by field observations. For three years we traveled these swamps as part of an international team of Congolese and British scientists, often staying for months at a time.
We set off by canoe to explore what we thought were bogs in the forested floodplains along the Congo and its eastern tributaries. Going up the river, we passed many small villages and fishing camps. Most are built on stilts because the river regularly floods its banks during the rainy season, preventing the peat from decomposing and releasing its carbon into the atmosphere.
The research team crossing the Ruki River in a canoe. Bart Crezee/University of Leeds, Author provided
These bogs may be new to the scientific literature, but they are familiar to the communities that have lived around them for generations and depended on them for fishing, hunting and gathering building materials. The people here helped us explore the bogs and allowed us to camp on their land, where they shared their knowledge of the swamps and the many plant and animal species that live there. Together, we set off on foot from the bank, trudging through a thick layer of mud in which we sometimes sank up to our waists.
A fishing camp along the Ikelemba River at the end of the rainy season. Bart Crezee/University of Leeds, Author provided
Every 250 meters we drove metal posts into the ground to measure the thickness of the peat layer. To our amazement, we often found peat up to six meters deep just a few kilometers from the river. This was totally unexpected, as the 2017 study in the Republic of Congo only found peat of a similar depth after walking 20 km into the swamp forest, far from any rivers. Knowing these regional differences is crucial – combined with satellite data, this allows us to map peat thickness in areas where we have not traveled. As the thickness of the peat layer largely determines the amount of carbon stored there, this is a major advance in understanding the size of this natural carbon reservoir.
The top 50 cm of a peat core. Bart Crezee/University of Leeds, Author provided Reverse massive natural defenses
We also brought peat samples back to the lab to more accurately calculate the amount of carbon. Combining these different measures, we conclude that Congolese peat swamp forests are one of the most carbon-dense ecosystems on earth, storing an average of 1,712 tonnes of carbon per hectare. Together, peatlands contain between 26 and 32 billion tonnes of carbon underground, roughly equivalent to three years of global emissions from burning fossil fuels.
Thick, carbon-rich peat has been found near major tributaries of the Congo River. Crezee et al. (2022), Author provided
Our research is part of an ongoing, long-term effort to understand the largest tropical peatland complex in the world. The CongoPeat project aims to understand how and when peatlands formed, and whether new species are found there. We also want to know more about the stability of this peat carbon in a warming climate and the effects of logging, drainage for agriculture or oil exploration.
The DRC oil auction on July 28 could be the beginning of the end for these peatlands. Opening them up for oil exploration before the Congolese people and the rest of the world can even know what the true cost would be is irresponsible. The country risks a mistake of epic proportions. What we do know is that by sequestering carbon, peatlands have helped cool the climate for thousands of years. Knocking down this precious natural defense against climate change in the space of a few years, just to find more of a fuel that the world already has more than it can safely burn, is not something the life on Earth can afford.
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