Despite the fact that peatland ecosystems cover huge areas in both the northern hemisphere and in the tropics, they are now recognized as being an un-represented wetland type in the global network of Ramsar wetlands of international importance. These ecosystems are the subject of a series of land use pressures including active forestry development of tropical forest species, agricultural drainage, energy and horticultural uses of peat resources and hydro-electric reservoirs.
Agriculture degrades peatlands through drainage, pollution and fire. Where peat is removed from raised bogs on a large scale, as is the case in Eire regeneration is unlikely as pressure from agriculture to exploit the remaining drained fertile peat is too great. Over 90% of midland raised bogs in Ireland have been exploited for turf production. Large scale afforestation, especially in Finland and the north of Scotland. Planting occurs after the peat is drained and treated with chemicals. The implications on regional hydrology, stream flow and water quality are raising many concerns. In Alaska and Siberia, leakages of oil and natural gas pipelines present other threats to peatland.
Peat is a soil that is made up of partially rotted remains of dead plants that have accumulated on top of each other in waterlogged places for thousands of years. The principal plant is Sphagnum moss, along with roots, leaves, flowers and seeds of heathers, grasses and sedges. Occasionally the trunks and roots of trees are also present. A mire is a wetland where the vegetation is rooted in deep peat. A fen is an alkaline sedge or reed swamp which often is the precursor to a peat bog.
Peatland soils cover some 5% to 8% of the world's land surface, amounting to around 300 to 500 million hectares. Because peat formation in generally closely linked to climate, much of the world resource lies in the northern temperate zone. Approximately 40% of the total is situated in the former USSR and 36% in Canada. The peatlands of north-west Europe in Scotland, Eire and Scandinavia are thought to have been the result of human activity, formed 3,500 and 4,500 years ago by the removal of the forest and possibly ploughing.
Peat-forming wetlands form an estimated 60% of all wetland distributed globally but occur predominantly in the northern boreal and the tropical zones of the world. Since 1996 many new initiatives have come forward to foster wise use of peatland resources. In March of 1996, in advance of COP6 of the Ramsar Convention, a series of partner agencies cooperated in the organization of an International Workshop on Global Mire and Peatland Conservation.
All natural peatlands or bogs in the Netherlands and Poland have been lost; Switzerland and Germany each have only 500 hectares remaining. In the UK, there has been a 90% loss of blanket bogs (only 125,000 hectares remains) and a 98% loss of raised bogs (only 1,170 hectares remains).
The former USSR harvested around 80 million tonnes in 1974 for electricity generation. In the republic of Eire, peat provides 20% of the national energy requirement (40% of electricity needs). 40,000 ha of the flow country in Scotland has been afforested with conifers. An estimated 30 million tonnes of CO2 is released into the atmosphere each year through the use of peat as a fuel. Peat can also burn underground once it has been drained, as the forest fires of Kalimantan, Indonesia have demonstrated.
The Chernobyl accident has shown that peatlands may retain radioactive fall-out for long periods. In Scandinavia, reindeer and other grazing animals feeding on peat land and tundra are still affected by Chernobyl fall-out.
Up to 20% of Kalimantan is peat. With global warming and the lowering of water tables, the peat is dry and burning in many places, releasing 5,000-10,000 years worth of stored carbon into the atmosphere having a significant effect at a global level. This contributes to the build up of greenhouse gases, releases particulate matter, sulphur and nitrous oxides increasing the threat to human health.