Draining peatlands leads to greenhouse laughing gas emissions, study shows

Sampling greenhouse gases in an oil palm plantation on drained peat In Klias, state of Sabah, Malaysia. Some of the highest emissions of nitrous oxide were observed compared to undisturbed organic soil in this location. Photo credit: University of Birmingham/Taavi Pae
Julie Mollins
29 March 2018

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — Drained peatlands lead to the significant release of nitrous oxide — a greenhouse gas also known colloquially as laughing gas — leading to global warming, according to a new study published in Nature Communications.

The authors of the study are urging increased conservation of fens, swamps and bogs to help reduce the impact of climate change and protect the ozone layer.

“Nitrous oxide is no laughing matter – it is a significant contributor to global climate change and depletion of the ozone layer, which protects our planet from cosmic radiation,” said Ülo Mander, senior lecturer in biogeochemistry at Estonia’s University of Tartu.

Nitrous oxide, which is used medically as an anesthetic, produces euphoric effects, leading to its use as a recreational drug.

“Organic soils, such as fens, swamps, bogs and drained peatlands, make up more than one-tenth of the world’s soil nitrogen pool and are a significant global source of laughing gas. They are significant sources of nitrous oxide when drained for cultivation,” Mander said in a statement.

A global network of more than 30 researchers led by Jaan Parn, a joint exchange postdoctoral fellow at Britain’s University of Birmingham, studied 58 peatland sites worldwide. A survey found that changes in nitrous oxide levels flux emission can be predicted by models incorporating soil nitrate concentration, water content and temperature.

Parn was supervised by Sami Ullah, a senior lecturer in biogeochemistry at the University of Birmingham and Mander.

“Our findings show that artificial drainage will be the primary driver of future changes in laughing gas emission from organic soils,” Parn said, explaining that predicting soil response to changes in climate or land use was central to understanding and managing nitrous oxide emission.

“This effect will be more pronounced in tropical regions leading to more nitrous oxide emitted to the atmosphere. Therefore, conservation and restoration of tropical fens and swamp forests should be made a priority to avoid and reduce emissions of this grim laughing gas.”

Both nitrate and soil moisture together result in 72 percent of laughing gas emission from global organic soils, according to the report.

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