GeoLog

peatlands

Imaggeo on Mondays: The unique bogs of Patagonia

Imaggeo on Mondays: The unique bogs of Patagonia

Patagonia, the region in southernmost tip of South America, is as diverse as it is vast. Divided by the Andes, the arid steppes, grasslands and deserts of Argentina give way to the temperate rainforests, fjords and glaciers of Chile. Also on the Chilean side are rolling hills and valleys of marshy topography: Patagonia’s bogs. Today, Klaus-Holger Knorr, a researcher at the University of Münster’s Institute for Landscape Ecology, tells us about what makes these peatlands so unique.

This picture shows an ombrotrophic, oceanic bog at the Seno Skyring Fjord, Patagonia, Chile. It is a view from the inner part of the peatland south toward the shore of the Fjord, in the background Isla Escapada and the Gran Campo ice field. Ombrotrophic bogs are peatlands (accumulations of more or less decomposed plant material which collect in a water-saturated environment) receiving their water and nutrients solely from the atmosphere, i.e. by rain, wet and dry deposition.

Similar to their Northern counterparts in Canada, Northern US, Fennoscandia or Siberia, these southern Patagonian peatlands  formed after the last deglaciation and accumulated huge amounts of carbon as peat.

Peatlands cover only about 3 % of the global land surface but store about a third of the soil carbon pool. Peat is formed primarily as there is excess rainfall, peat soils are water logged, oxygen gets depleted, and decomposition is limited. Pristine, undisturbed peatlands can store as much as 10-50 g carbon per square meter and year.

What makes the peatlands in Patagonia  particularly interesting  is their pristine, undisturbed conditions and extremely low input of nutrients from the atmosphere, compared to the high input into sites in densely settled or industrial regions. This allows studies of peatland functioning under natural conditions and absence of anthropogenic impacts.

Moreover, peatlands in Patagonia harbor a specific kind of vegetation, including cushion forming plants such as Astelia pumila and Donatia fascicularis. These cushion forming plants have a very low above ground biomass but an extremely large rooting system, reaching down to a depth of >2 m in case of A. pumila. As these roots act as conduits for oxygen to sustain viability of the roots in the water logged peat, they have been shown to aerate large parts even of the saturated zone, thereby impeding high methane production and emission. Oxygen supply by these roots is even hypothesized to stimulate peat decomposition and thereby lead to particularly decomposed peat under cushion plant cover.

Another plant species only occurring in peatlands of Southern Patagonia, a small conifer named Lepidothamnus fonkii, has developed a particular strategy to overcome nutrient deficiency: it has formed a close association with bacteria being able fix atmospheric nitrogen to fulfill the demand of nitrogen for growth. While such nitrogen fixation is well known for legumes and some tree species, it has rarely been found for conifers.

A further important factor for peatlands in Patagonia, leading to the term “oceanic bogs”, is the fact that these peatlands in close vicinity to the seashore receive high inputs of sea salts from sea spray, modifying availability of associated elements such as Sodium, Calcium, Magnesium, Sulphur and others.

By Klaus-Holger Knorr, researcher at the University of Münster’s Institute for Landscape Ecology

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: Fire Watch Constellation

Imaggeo on Mondays: Fire Watch Constellation

Wild fires: raging walls of flames, capable of burning down swathes of pristine, sometimes protected and ancient, landscapes have been causing havoc around the globe. Managing and controlling them is no easy task; they can unexpectedly change their course with the wind and jump across rivers, roads and man-made fire breaks.

The significant threat they pose, and damage they can cause, to valuable ecosystems worldwide has been recently evidenced by the destruction of 180 million year old forests in Tasmanian; so unique they are a designated United Nations World Heritage wilderness land. Not only that, wildfires can have sever effects on air quality, directly impacting human health, while at the same time contributing hefty amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. As recently as the end of last year (2015), forest fires in Indonesia were hailed as a ‘crime against humanity‘, after causing over 500,000 cases of acute respiratory tract infections.

This week’s Imaggeo on Mondays photograph highlights an emerging field of research where scientists are developing new methods to try and better understand the past impact of wildfires and how they contributed (or not) to climate change.

Of his image, Egle Rackauskaite writes: This composite shows a constellation of combined visual and infrared imaging of a smouldering combustion front spreading radially over a thin sample of dry peat. The central watch is created by a series of twelve wedges. Each wedge is extracted from a photo taken every 5 min from an elevated view looking down into the sample during the one-hour lab experiment. The circular peat sample (D=22 cm) was ignited on the centre by an electrical heater. The average radial spread rate was 10 cm/h and the peak temperature 600°C. The top figures show the virgin peat (left) and the final residue (right). The bottom figures show the wedges in visual (left) and infrared (right) imaging. Smouldering combustion is the driving phenomenon of wildfires in peatlands, like those causing haze episodes in southeast Asia and Northeast Europe. These are the largest fires on Earth and an extensive source of greenhouse gases, but poorly studied. Our experiments help to understand this emerging research topic in climate-change mitigation by characterizing the dynamics of ignition, spread and extinction, and also measure the yield of carbon emissions.

If you pre-register for the 2016 General Assembly (Vienna, 17 – 22 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 1 February up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.