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Canada’s ‘Rich Carbon Sink’ Peatlands Need Urgent Protection, Story Map Shows

Northern peatlands—the richest carbon sinks on the planet and epicentres of biodiversity—are in urgent need of protection from human development, the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada asserts, in a detailed “story map” that outlines why and how these “enormous carbon storehouses” must be preserved, with Indigenous peoples leading the way.

Featuring highly informative infographics, beautiful photographs, and evocative text, the just-published multimedia map illustrates both the grandeur and the fragility of Canada’s peatlands, the largest of their kind in the world, covering “more than 1.1 million square kilometres, or roughly 12% of the nation’s total land area”.

Though northern Ontario and Quebec are home to the largest peatlands, the boggy systems are found throughout the boreal forest system, with a huge swath curving northwest from Manitoba through central Saskatchewan, northern Alberta, the northeast corner of British Columbia, and on into the Northwest Territories.

In their entirety, Canada’s peatlands are believed to store at least 25% (150 billion tonnes) of the world’s peatland carbon sources, explains WCS Canada. All told, carbon storage across global peatlands is estimated at 550 billion tonnes, or 30% of the world’s total soil carbon inventory.

That extraordinary carbon density means peatlands—found in the tropics, in temperate regions, and in the boreal forest—“play a critical role in regulating the Earth’s climate,” WCS Canada says. And Canada’s peatlands are particularly important: according to the story map, “one square metre of peatland from northern Canada has around five times the amount of carbon as one square metre of tropical rainforest in the Amazon.”  

Peatlands in general, and Canada’s in particular, are also profoundly important as global hotspots of biodiversity. Case in point, says WCS Canada, are the Hudson Bay Lowlands, home to “many nationally and globally rare plants and lichens,” as well as “species of national conservation concern” like wolverine, polar bear, and a sandpiper called the Hudsonian godwit.

The godwit is one of hundreds of species that gather to fill the Lowlands with billions of birds each summer. WCS Canada explains that the nutrient rich coastal marshes that line James Bay are of “hemispheric importance,” serving as migratory stopovers and “critical breeding and staging grounds”.

While still largely pristine (peatlands are excellent water purifiers), both the Lowlands and the rest of Canada’s peatlands are threatened by two forces: human development, and climate change.

Striking infographics in the story map reveal that, despite the relative isolation of the northern peatlands, human infrastructure (roads, railroads, pipelines, and especially dams) has made huge—and destructive—incursions.

“Carbon dioxide and methane are released when peatlands are degraded or disturbed due to draining for development, such as mining and road construction, or flooded for hydroelectricity,” says the story map. WCS Canada urges Canadians to “be very aware of what is at stake when we introduce development that could lead to major releases of carbon from these sensitive areas.”

Drained peatlands are at increased risk of wildfire—which releases their stored carbon—but the relationship between peatlands and the climate crisis is even more complex than that. Northern peatlands have been frozen for millennia as part of the permafrost, but as the planet warms, they are beginning to thaw. While scientists are certain that this thaw is “altering carbon storage dynamics in these peatlands, including increasing the amount of carbon dioxide and methane released,” they are not yet sure how much carbon these newly unfrozen, newly growing peatlands may themselves remove from the atmosphere. 

What is therefore needed, says WCS Canada, is quantification of the peatland carbon balance, a measure that will require “developing accurate estimates of peatland extent and a better understanding of water table dynamics, vegetation change, and decomposition processes.” 

Canada’s current efforts to quantify emissions and reductions from these and other ecosystems rely solely on forest inventory data, “which are only available where there is ongoing or potential commercial forestry,” the organization notes. As northern peatlands offer little value to the forestry industry, they are not currently included in existing data collection efforts—a serious gap that needs to be addressed. The organization is calling for updates to these collection networks, so that “the national carbon accounting system accurately reflects carbon storehouses in northern peatlands and boreal ecosystems”—and urging that the impacts of industrial activity be well studied before any new projects are approved.

The involvement of Indigenous peoples will be central in all such efforts to protect Canada’s peatlands, WCS Canada stresses. The Mushkegowuk First Nations in northern Ontario “have navigated the rivers, wetlands, and marine regions” of the Lowlands for “time immemorial,” and, as guardians and stewards, “play a leadership role in protecting northern peatlands in Canada, including its biodiversity and carbon.” In creating a plan to protect Canada’s peatlands, it will be critical to “support and fund Indigenous-led conservation, including land use planning and the establishment of Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs).” As part of its proposed solution, WCS Canada is urging government to “invest in Indigenous Guardians to help monitor and protect northern peatlands and to manage IPCAs that protect carbon storehouses.”

In an email to The Energy Mix, WCS Canada President Justina Ray pointed to “growing interest” among Lowlands-area First Nations to become involved in plans to safeguard the carbon stored in peatlands. The region has “almost no formal protections at present,” said Ray, and, as carbon is “only potentially valuable in an offsetting context…it has to be disturbed to have value.” Since the Lowlands currently have little resource or industry potential, she said work must be done to create incentives to reduce or avoid emissions.