The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast

Edward Struzik on the urgent need to restore our peatlands

November 19, 2021 Economy Land & Climate Insight Team
The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast
Edward Struzik on the urgent need to restore our peatlands
Show Notes Transcript

"If you follow the developments at Glasgow, everyone's looking for the Big Idea. This, in my mind, is an obvious one."

ELCI Assistant Editor Bertie Harrison-Broninski takes over to talk with veteran climate journalist Edward Struzik about his new book, Swamplands: tundra beavers, quaking bogs, and the improbable world of peat. They talk COP, burning peat for energy, the process of rewetting peatland, and Edward gives a cultural & historical background to peatlands, arguing that we still need to change cultural perspectives of our bogs, fens and marshes.

You can also read our review of the book here

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

Hello, and welcome to the Economy, Land and Climate podcast. My name is Bertie Harrison-Broninski, and today Im talking to climate journalist Edward Struzik about his new book, Swamplands - Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs, and the Improbable World of Peat. After a COP26 which had eight times as many peatland events as COP25, but held during a month where England experienced over a hundred peatland fires, theres no better time for books like Edwards, which aims to change the way we view our bogs, fens, swamps and marshes.

Edward Struzik:

Bogs and fens and swamps and marshes in many cases really are just remnants of the last ice age, where the ice retreated, left a lot of water in depressions, and many of them evaporated, but as I pointed out, quite a few of them were drained...

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

I began by asking Edward to give us an introduction to his book and to what he calls the improbable world of peat.

Edward Struzik:

Peatlands, as many people know are bogs, fens, swamps and marshes that accumulate peat, swamps and marshes not so much, and peat is partially decayed plants and animals that build up over centuries. Mosses like sphagnum are the foundation of peat throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere. It's a fascinating plant because it absorbs 15 to 26% of its own moisture, it's almost indestructible. I know of a botanist who pulled one out of a glacier in the high Arctic that she dated to be 500 years old, and she was able to regrow it back in her lab. Peatlands, like most of it occurs in the Northern Hemisphere, but you find it pretty much everywhere. And this is the thing that fascinated me the most, such as the High Arctic, you know, 1000 kilometres from the North Pole. You find it in the Alakai swamp on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, there are 22 bogs at high elevations there where some of the rarest plants of the world are found, 20,000 feet high at the base of the Sajama Volcano in Bolivia. And the one that I highlight quite a bit in my book is The Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina, which has a rich history. You also have tropical bogs in Indonesia, Africa, parts of the Amazon and of course in your part of the world, famously in the flow country of Scotland, the Isle of Skye, even Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast of America, you find peat there. We've really demonised peat for an awful long time - or swamp lands - for an awful long time. And I was really curious to you know, explore this, you know, traditionally seen as the haunts of Will-o'-the-wisp and Jack O' Lanterns. But it was also used and is still used as a source of fuel. You know, when all the trees were cut down in Europe, many people resorted to peat as what eventually was replaced by coal. And a thing that I talk about a lot in my book is that these prejudices towards swamp lands were carried over to the New World by British and European settlers. And you know, the first thing that they did was, they cut down trees, such as the Atlantic white cedar, which thrive in swamp land conditions, and really dominated the forest all the way from the Maritimes in Canada, right down to Georgia. That was that was the dominant tree. And they're pretty much all gone now. And it was fascinating to learn that there were actually companies and corporations that were put into play to drain these swamps, to get up to the trees and also to turn the land into agriculture. And one of them was George Washington, who was the head of the company that drained, tried to drain the Great Dismal Swamp. He eventually when he became president got Congress to invest in it, and they use slaves to drain the swamp, to cut down trees. And for some of the slaves who escaped plantations and workcamps the swamp was really a shortcut to freedom. Many were hunted down by dogs and caught and punished and sometimes executed. But others hid in the deepest, darkest parts of the swamp before finding their way north, all the way to Canada. But the really fascinating thing is that many stayed and raised families there. And this is what I found interesting because we always refer to peatlands as unproductive - botanists will tell you that, many have told me that, because there's not a lot of great diversity there. But we have quotations, accounts, from enslaved people who talked about how great the water was, how one man said it was a dreadly healthy place to live. Because there was a lot of game. There was not a lot of people exploiting those environments. But outside those swamps, you know there was a kind of manifest destiny by a lot of Americans and Canadians. American cities set to drain these places and American cities such as New York drained peatlands for park and urban development, Prospect Park and Central Park were at one time swamplands, but they also drained them for public health reasons as people in Great Britain did. Many felt, many medical experts felt that there's a miasma that rose up from these swamplands and infected people with all kinds of diseases including cholera. And so if you could smell something like the sulphur dioxide or that rotting smell that you get from some bogs and fens, people equated that with some kind of miasma that would spread disease and leading agriculturalists such as Henry Flagg French, who was also the US assistant secretary treasurer. He actually articulated it, saw peatlands as the miasma, the unhealthy soils, the poison, of unwholesome water, and he's the guy that invented the French drain which is still used today to move water off land and away from houses. And it became institutionalised, and Swamp Acts of 1849 1850 and 1860 in the United States led to the drainage of 65 million acres of peatlands in the United States. What we have now, I mean, there was a heck of a lot more in the past than there is now because really, peatlands, bogs and fens and swamps and marshes in many cases really are just remnants of the last ice age, where the ice retreated, left a lot of water in depressions, and many of them evaporated, but as I pointed out, quite a few of them were drained. And now we have a situation in the world where we've got basically three to 4% of the Earth's landscape is peatland.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

And why should specifically climate researchers and policymakers care about peatlands?

Edward Struzik:

From an ecological services point of view, they really pack a big punch. They store twice as much carbon as all the world's forest. The Hudson Bay lowlands in Canada store five times more carbon than the equivalent area in the Amazon rainforest. And each time I say this people just can't quite wrap their heads around that, because the Amazon rainforest is so iconic resorts made lowlands just seem like this frozen wasteland. The other thing that peatlands do very well is they filter and store water much more efficiently than forests do. Here in North America, healthy peatlands can stop or slow wildfire in its tracks. Firefighters are beginning to understand this and they call them the firefighters' best friend. They can mitigate flooding, because sphagnum absorbs so much water. And I guess the final thing that I like to say about the book is there's just so much we still don't really know, and we're continuing to discover about peatlands and the life that lives there. The pitcher plant for example, we all know that it is carnivorous, like the sundew, it consumes insects, but it wasn't just till two years ago that biologists found that they also eat salamanders. So if a salamander gets into its pocket there, they will consume it. It wasn't until 2017 that you know, a British scientist found the world's largest tropical peatland in the Republic of Congo. And in Canada, it wasn't until 2017 that scientists figured out how it was that rattlesnakes, which is really a warm weather critter, could survive in extremely cold temperatures in the winter, minus 30 degrees centigrade. And they discovered they do that by denning in peat, which is a great form of insulation. So that's really what the whole book is about, you know, it's cultural, it's environmental. For me, it was also a wonderful adventure travel story traveling through these places.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

There's so much to dig into there. And particularly that last point you're making about how much we don't know - that really came through in the book - every couple of pages, you talked about things that surprised you or surprised others or that the reader might not have expected. I was shocked for this reason when you just said that you still talk to botanists who think there's not much biodiversity within the peatlands they look at. Tying that into what you said about rainforest being perceived very differently to peatland; do you still think that we have a cultural issue specifically around the way that we view peatland, have we moved away from that kind of historical bias towards it, when compared with other landscapes and environments?

Edward Struzik:

I don't think we have, you know, enough. I think to some extent in in the United Kingdom, there's certainly an awareness there, you know, they're banning peat, the sale of peat for horticultural purposes in 2025. In Scandinavia, there's a real understanding that the degradation of peat really affects water quality and in Russia, there's an understanding that peat fires are the result of that kind of degradation, you dry out peat, and it can easily catch fire. But you know, elsewhere in the world, you know, North America in particular, where we should know better, there's a kind of - those old prejudices still are there, I've been conducting a lot of interviews and some webinars and, and people tend to be, you know, educated people tend to be fascinated, but also, why bother. I had this interview, really in the latest webinar is that you know what, they're buggy, they're squishy, they're smelly, you know, you can't hike through them. And my response was, well, that's the point. I mean, that's why they're so intact and undisturbed in most places, because really, we as humans are the culprits. You know, you can have 5 million people who visit the Canadian Rockies every year, and that has had a huge environmental consequence. And it's hard to turn that back and tell people that you can't go there anymore. In fact, the Canadian Park Service is having this problem right now because caribou are a peatland critter as I mentioned earlier, and they have disappeared from Banff National Park and are disappearing from Jasper National Park. And there's an understanding now that the last stronghold is in the peatland in Jasper. And they've closed that off now to skiing in winter because that's where they spend most of the time. And people are just outraged. They think, you know, it's just a buggy place in the summer, and it's a wonderful place to ski why keep us out? And so there's this disconnect still, you know, that they're underappreciated. You know, the other example is the Prime Minister of Canada has allocated several billion dollars to plant something like a billion trees over the next 10 years. Which is great. You know, you can't argue with that, because everybody loves trees and Jane Goodall's doing the same thing, please, everybody plant a tree. But what people don't understand is that it takes quite a bit of fertiliser to plant a tree, you know, they need nitrogen. It takes a lot of water to get a tree going in the first place. And it takes a long time to grow, and it can all disappear in a day or two with a wildfire. I'm not saying we shouldn't do that, because I think there's a real, you know, an important role for forests in this climate change mitigation. But if you look at peatlands, you know, many of them are acidic environments where you if you want to grow Sphagnum, you're not going to put nitrogen or fertiliser into the mix because they don't like it. That's why the pitcher plant has got to find, you know, salamanders and insects to feed itself because there's not much there in the soil for them to consume. And, you know, they just pack so much into, you know, the carbon sequestration and storage. We know now that you can grow or accumulate peat, it's not difficult, it's not expensive. It's actually I think, cheaper than it is to grow trees. And so why not embark on this? You're not taking anything away from most people, because most people don't visit, slosh through a bog or a fen or a swamp. So I just think that it's overlooked. And largely because it's misunderstood. And I think also, the other thing that we have in play is that we're always looking for the big idea, you know, shooting silica into the atmosphere to reflect the, you know, the rays of the sun back, growing, you know, billions and billions of trees that could easily burn down, where this to me is just a fairly simple solution, that's not going to really affect anybody. You're not going to have, say Indigenous people who harvest something like 526 plants out of peatlands for food and medicinal purposes, saying, no, we don't want you to do this, because they have many words for it, because it's so important to them. So I just think it's such a simple, obvious solution. And, you know, when you follow things at the developments in Glasgow, everybody's looking for the, you know, the big idea. And here this one, in my mind is an obvious one.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

One section of your book that really stood out for me was the discussion of this kind of mass hysteria in mid 19th century Britain and America having the need to drain peatlands in entirety to reduce disease. I found it interesting because it contrasted with the many sections where you talk about peatland drainage as a kind of ideological colonial project, this was more to do with a scientific consensus around a seemingly existential threat. There are parallels with this, I think, and the section about the 1950s, when Britain wanted to test nuclear bombs in Canadian and Alaskan peatland. This sense of an existential threat requiring huge land use change or ecological damage. And I have to be careful not to sound like a climate skeptic here, but I wondered if there's some kind of warning there almost, when we're now at this stage of climate negotiations and planning, because we're once again trying to avert a huge existential threat, with some scientific communities recommending techno futuristic solutions that involve enormous changes to environments, or enormous land use change. Is there a kind of warning in your book about not rushing into these kind of large scale, new, maverick projects, but favouring nature based solutions and traditional ecological knowledge, in climate strategies?

Edward Struzik:

Yeah, there is. I discuss it. It really comes to the fore when I looked at, for example, I attended this meeting, this sort of Think Tank meeting, it was during COVID, where we couldn't get together, but we were all zooming. And there's David Keith from Harvard, who you know, wants to shoot this silica into the atmosphere. There are other people talking about, you know, finding ways of freezing the tundra. And I think some people there I think stepped in and just said, you know, we can't really rush into it. Because we don't know what the consequences are. The beauty of what I'm saying is that my idea is just to restore. In many cases, it's just a matter of rewetting. Rerouting those waterways, groundwater and surface water that were diverted away from a bog or a fen and bringing it back there, so relatively easy engineering. And tried and true. It can backfire. The beaver is a classic example. I know that in Britain, they've reintroduced the Beaver to some places, and some farmers, agriculturalists are not happy of having land, their crops flooded by these critters, but they're easily controlled. But they can get out of hand, you know, they were transferred, I think 46 were transferred, flown from Canada to South America in the Patagonia area. And what most people didn't understand was, they have no predators down there. And so, you know, 56, beavers turned into more than a million beavers. And the ecological impact has been enormous little millions and millions of hectares of land have been flooded. And forests are literally drowning there, because we introduced this critter that really had no place there, was never there. And I think the, you know, the way that they did it in most places in Britain, a few people smuggled them into, I think, the flow country and other areas, but others, scientists just literally, you know, built fences around the area they wanted impacted. And, and I think it really worked well from what I understand. I wanted to do this, to go on a beaver tour. My plans to go to do more of what was happening in Great Britain. But the book, the research had to stop, because the last place I was when COVID really kind of reared its ugly head was I was in the Great Dismal Swamp and I was, I was not really aware at the time how impactful it would be, my next stop was going to be the flow country, and then northern Finland. And when I got out of the swamp, suddenly, there was, you know, notice that all flights back to Canada, where I'm from, were going to stop in two or three days, so I had to get the hell out of there really quickly. And that really ended my travels.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

Yeah, I would have been interested to read your chapter on Finland, because one thing I did notice is that you didn't talk a lot about the energy industry in Europe, in terms of burning peat in power stations. I wondered what you thought about that. Is there any room for burning peat for energy? Or is this something that we should just be looking to eliminate completely?

Edward Struzik:

You know, the reason why I didn't explore it as much as I wanted to was because I didn't get a chance, at the end of that part of the itinerary was to visit some of these power projects. I really don't think that there's any role that peat can play in producing energy. I just think that there's so many different alternatives that are available. And what saddens me is that is that the countries like the Republic of Congo are increasingly relying on peat to produce their power. Because there's no incentive for them to you know, there's the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank are not encouraging them to do the

obvious:

solar, they've got a lot of solar opportunity there. And other countries, you know, throughout Africa are going the same way. Fortunately, Ireland is trying to wean itself off. Finland is doing it reluctantly. I don't really see any evidence of that in places like Estonia and Belaruss. So but you know, the damage that is done not just to the atmosphere, but to all of the life that lives in these fens and all of the services that peat provides, such as filtering water, slowing wildfires, are lost when we remove it to produce electricity or heat. It just makes no sense.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

You mentioned Glasgow earlier. Have you been following the peat discussions at COP? Has anything of importance related to peatlands come out of the conference, in your opinion?

Edward Struzik:

Well, there have been presentations there by the International Peatland Society and the United Nations that are on this and trying to move this forward. But I haven't really seen any agreement in place and it's mostly on forests, mostly about carbon emissions and carbon sequestration. But I still think that most political leaders just haven't grasped the importance of bogs, fens, swamps and marshes. And I see this each time I talk to, you know, I get invited occasionally to speak to leaders, political leaders, and one of them going to my last book was on wildfires. And I was stunned by just how tied they were to the business as usual models, that if we just continue pouring more money into firefighting efforts, you know, we're going to get on top of this. It's kind of like a warfare mentality. You get more people on the ground, more hoses, more water bombers. And yeah, we'll get this under controls, at some point, not really understanding that with climate change, and humans living in these forest environments, you've got a recipe for disaster, that we're just going to see more fires burning bigger, hotter, faster and more often. And no amount of traditional strategies that we're using is going to be able to deal with it. So we've got to find other ways. There's a now a beginning, an understanding that maybe you've got to thin the forest, allow some to burn where it's possible, because that's what lightning would have done otherwise. But it's difficult to do, because it's so late in the game, and you have so many people on the landscape that it's hard to turn back the clock there. But for me, it's easier to turn back the clock with peatlands, largely because you're not moving people out, you're not displacing them. You may be telling power companies that you can't continue to do this anymore. But that's what we need to do. I mean, we've got to start, you know, incentivizing people in industry, to stop doing this and invest your money and other resources. The interesting thing in Canada is that, you know, the Darth Vaders of the ecosystem, the oil sands industry, people don't understand it, but they are more than any other industry are moving towards solar and wind power. They've created subsidiaries understanding, I'm only breathing into it, but I think understanding that their days are done trying to sell dirty oil, and that the future is going to be in solar and wind. And because that's where the subsidies are going to be. And the subsidies for fossil fuels are ending. So we are seeing the shift, thankfully, but not with the help of government. I mean, at least not in North America. I mean, look at the United States. It's absolutely crazy that, you know, we've just gone through four years of Trump who tried to undo every move forward. And now we have Biden and Congress, handcuffed in trying to undo everything that he did and move forward. So it's a slow process.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

I wanted to ask you, in terms of turning back the clock - earlier, you said it's relatively simple engineering to rewet peatlands. To what extent can drained ancient peatland be restored to what it was, in practical terms?

Edward Struzik:

I'll give you some examples. You know, it's not perfect. And interestingly, one of the leaders in peatland restoration in North America are the sphagnum moss harvesters because they saw this coming sometime around the turn of the century, because they were watching what was happening in Britain. And the fact that most of the peat was depleted, the exports of beet were declining dramatically, and government was getting really interested in restoring peat. And so they started hiring scientists to restore areas that they had essentially harvested to see if you could regrow it. And it's pretty impressive. I mean, I don't advocate this in a passionate way, but you know, one site that I was at, they restored 87% of all the plants that were there, and those plants brought back an awful lot of wildlife. But, and this is the thing that I hammer home quite often is that it's what's below the ground that I think is really the main driver. The microbes, you know, the worms, the chemistry, the water, I don't know that you can ever really bring that back to the state that it was before it was degraded. But 87% In my mind is a heck of a lot better than zero percent. And so probably the most effective thing would be to go to a healthy peatland or a partially degraded peatland and focus on those and maybe even map out those which we think are most biologically important, you know, the real hotspots, and then start setting them aside as protected areas. There's not a national park in North America that was established to conserve a bog fen or a swamp. There are some bogs, fens and swamps in national parks, but that wasn't the purpose. And it was largely back to the original cultural thinking within the National Park Services that these are unproductive wastelands. And so there was no need to include them in the ecosystems we want to protect. So I think that that's another way we can go we can go about it is having National Park Services protected areas, maybe working in tandem with volunteer groups such as the Great Fen in Britain, I mean, what a great success story that's turning into be, you know, with having Stephen Fry, the great actor, I think this is or was, you know, chairman of that effort. You know, that kind of cultural thinking is that we've got to treasure these areas and really respect them for what they are and not what we used to think that they were.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

Just one final question related to that, which might be a bit difficult to answer given the different forms and sizes of peatlands, but is there a kind of timescale to rewetting and restoring peatland?

Edward Struzik:

Yeah, you know, it normally in nature would be hundreds, thousands of years. But rewetting a degraded peatland, you can start seeing results within seven to 10 years. And I think that, you know that that's a lot faster than you can grow a tree. So that holds a heck of a lot of promise. You know, restoring something like the peatlands of the oil sands, I don't think that's ever going to happen, although they're trying to happen, have tried to make it happen, because a law says you've got to replace you know what you've destroyed. But the price tag is so huge, you know, they dig 100 metres below the ground, and they remove all the peat and restoring those I think are virtually impossible. But it can be done, you know, fairly effectively. It's not perfect. But I'm a big believer in science. I think that if we start investing more in the science of peatlands, and how they form and how they accumulate, and how they can be maintained. I think you know, a lot of progress can be made.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

My thanks to Edward Struzik in putting this podcast together. Swamplands - Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs, and the Improbable World of Peat is out now from Island Press, and you can read my review of it on our site at ELC-Insight.org. If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe or follow us, and we'll have more interesting interviews on climate topics in the very near future. Thanks for listening.