Many of Europe’s peatlands are currently the driest they have been in the last 1,000 years, new research shows.
Scientists examined 31 peatlands across Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and continental Europe to assess changes in peatland surface wetness over the last 2,000 years.
They found that nearly half of the study sites are now the driest they have been for a millennium.
While changes to temperature and rainfall have significantly contributed to peatland drying, 42 percent of the sites had been significantly damaged by human activities.
The peatland sites in Britain and Ireland had the most extensive degradation compared to the other sites, with cutting, drainage, burning and grazing all contributing to peatland drying.
“Peatlands that are ‘healthy’ have an exceptional potential for the capture and storage of carbon from the atmosphere, and are one of Earth’s most important carbon sinks,” said Dr Thomas Roland, of the University of Exeter.
“However, our study found that many European peatlands have been drying out over the last 300 years, most likely in response to climate change and human impacts, like draining, cutting and burning.
“This may transform these ecosystems from sinks to sources in the global carbon cycle, highlighting a vital need to protect, conserve and restore our peatlands.”
Study lead author Dr Graeme Swindles, from the University of Leeds, said: “Our study sites include some of the least damaged peatlands in Europe, but it is clear that almost all European peatlands have been affected by human activities to some extent.
“The combined pressure of climate change and human impacts may push these vitally important carbon storing ecosystems into becoming a global source of carbon emissions.
“It is more important than ever that we safeguard peatlands with effective management and active restoration.”
The paper, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, is entitled: “Widespread drying of European peatlands in recent centuries.”