The Looming Threat of Climate Change on Peatlands

by Ethan Fukuto

In January 2017, Simon Lewis of the University of Leeds published new findings mapping 55,000 square miles of peatlands in the Cuvette Centrale depression in the Congo Basin of Central Africa. Lewis et al.’s findings chart the Cuvette Centrale as the largest peatlands in the tropics, containing around 30 percent of the worldwide total of carbon soil in tropical peatlands. Carbon-rich peat, perhaps best known as an ingredient in whisky production, is a soil formed by decomposing organic matter. Peatlands are found primarily in northern regions such as Canada and Europe, though tropical peatlands, such as the Cuvette Centrale, pose a greater risk to global climate issues. As these regions dry due to climate change and human land-use, their susceptibility to fires increases the risk of a massive output of carbon into the atmosphere. A 2006 study on soil carbon and climate change by Eric Davidson and Ivan Janssens called for a broadening of scope in the study of temperature sensitivity to include areas such as peatlands. They describe these areas, along with wetlands and permafrost soils, as the “most obvious environments” affected by “climatic disruption”, and thus necessitate further study and scrutiny. In 2015, Indonesia endured intense fires across peatlands as a result of the palm oil industry’s slash and burn farming techniques. Indonesian peatlands likewise released between 0.6 to 0.8 petagrams (1015 grams) of carbon alone during the 1997 El Niño, accounting for 10% of anthropogenic emissions. Lewis et al. estimate that the Cuvette Centrale peatland contains around 30.6 petagrams of carbon belowground. Given its tropical environment, the recently-discovered peatlands are at risk of fires and intense carbon emissions due to potential changes in land-use. Current legal protection of the region is scant: the region is relatively inaccessible to humans; however this does not preclude the potential for future development. Lewis et al.’s study is the first step in preserving and protecting the region. Given the historical example of Indonesia’s peatlands, this study calls for greater attention to the Cuvette Centrale in planning and government initiatives.


Davidson, Eric A., and Ivan A. Janssens. “Temperature sensitivity of soil carbon decomposition and feedbacks to climate change.” Nature 440, no. 7081 (2006): 165-173. (

Fountain, Henry. “As Peat Bogs Burn, a Climate Threat Rises”. New York Times, (8 August 2016). (

Fountain, Henry. “Scientists Map Vast Peat Swamps, a Storehouse of Carbon, in Central Africa”. New York Times, (11 January 2017). (

Lewis, Simon, Dargie, Greta C., Ian T. Lawson, Edward TA Mitchard, Susan E. Page, Yannick E. Bocko, and Suspense A. Ifo. “Age, extent and carbon storage of the central Congo Basin peatland complex.” Nature (2017). (



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