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The University of Southampton
Geography and Environmental Science

Widespread drying of European peatlands in recent centuries

Published: 21 October 2019
Peat sites

Head of Geography and Environmental Science Professor Pete Langdon is part of a collaboration of researchers whose work has revealed the widespread drying of European peatlands in recent centuries.

Pete worked with colleagues across Europe investigating peat sites and assessing changes in the peatland surface wetness during the last 2,000 years. Their results show that nearly half of the study sites are the driest they have been for the last 1,000 years.


For the first time, this work has been synthesised across Europe and the results are stark, with the majority of sites now drier than they have been in hundreds of years.

Pete said: “Myself and colleagues have been working on peat sites in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and continental Europe for a number of years, and also collating paleoclimate records that span the past few millennia. We have used this information to reconstruct past hydroclimate, so that we can understand the natural variability against which contemporary climate warming can be assessed.”

“Climate warming and human impacts are most likely responsible, and this may be altering how the peatlands function, moving from carbon sinks to sources.”

The research, which is led by the University of Leeds, examined 31 peatlands and revealed that the sites in Britain and Ireland had the most degradation compared to the other sites, with cutting, drainage, burning and grazing all contributing to peatland drying. Changes to temperature and rainfall have significantly contributed to peatland drying, with 42 per cent of the sites having been significantly damaged by human activities.

Lead author Dr Graeme Swindles, from Leeds, said: “Our study sites included 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 research paper Widespread drying of European peatlands in recent centuries has recently been published in Nature Geoscience. Pete added: “Being published in such a high impact journal as Nature Geoscience reflects the importance of these unique ecosystems and highlights the need to continue to protect them sustainably for the future.”


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