A scientific expedition led by Simon Lewis of the University of Leeds encountered dwarf crocodiles, gorillas, and elephants as they trudged through Congo’s swampland for three weeks on end. But the sojourn was worth it. They found what they were looking for—an area the size of England containing billions of tons of peat that date back 10,000 years.
Peatlands are frequently associated with the United Kingdom, where they cover 12 percent of England, Scotland, and Wales. There, they are well known as a source of fuel for fires used to dry the barley that goes into making whiskey. Peatlands are also famous for their ability to preserved bodies in remarkably stable states.
The newly-discovered peatland in Africa, though, holds deeper historical information about the Congo basin and its role in climate change.
Peat consists of partly-decomposed vegetation which accumulates in wet areas. The fact that it’s not fully decomposed means it some of the dead plants’ carbon from escaping to the atmosphere. Carbon sinks—particularly this one, which is 23 feet deep—can be a trove of information about the local (and global) climatological past.
Here’s Rebecca Morelle, writing for BBC News:
The scientists say analysing this material, which is thousands of years old, will help them to learn more about the Congo Basin’s role in the world’s past and present climate.
Dr Lewis said: “Peatlands, generally, have been a big carbon sink over the past 10,000 years. They have been taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it as peat for the long term.
“And what we’ve found in central Africa is another one of those areas, so it adds a little piece to that jigsaw puzzle of where all the carbon goes in the atmosphere, where the sources are and where the sinks are, particularly in the pre-industrial era.
“So we can reduce our uncertainty around the global carbon cycle before humans started changing it.”
The International Peat Society estimates that about 3% of the world’s land is peatland, and given the dearth of survey data, that’s probably a low estimate.
The unearthing of the Congo peatland is a perfect an example of how little we know about our planet’s hidden landscapes—even in this era of satellite imagery. There’s still plenty left to discover, and what we find can help us fill in the details about our planet’s past, present, and future.