Carbon Storage in Amazonian Peatlands: Distribution and Dynamics

Lead Research Organisation: University of St Andrews
Department Name: Geography and Sustainable Development


This proposal aims to make a step change in the precision and accuracy of our knowledge of the distribution of peatlands in the tropics, and to develop a capacity to predict and monitor future changes to the carbon storage function of these peatlands.

Tropical forest ecosystems are important for carbon storage. The densest 'carbon hotspots' occur where peat underlies the vegetation. Peat is an organic soil formed by the accumulation of plant litter, often over thousands of years, usually under waterlogged conditions which limit micro-organism activity and inhibit litter decomposition.

Given that they store so much carbon per unit area, tropical peatlands should be priorities for conservation. Unfortunately, it is not currently known with certainty where peatlands occur. Even using satellite imagery, it is challenging to distinguish forest overlying peat from forest occurring on dry soil. Mapping peat deposits in the field by trial and error is impractical given the large areas of remote terrain involved.

This proposal builds on an extensive record of research into tropical peatlands by the research team. Our group has worked extensively in the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin (PMFB) in Peruvian Amazonia. Here, in one of the highest-rainfall regions of Amazonia, the existence of extensive bodies of peat was only revealed by a publication in 2009. Since then, we have undertaken extensive fieldwork and laboratory analyses, and have developed an algorithm that uses remotely-sensed (satellite) data to predict the distribution of vegetation types associated with peat in the PMFB. On this basis we estimate that there is more than 35,000 square km of peat in the PMFB, making it by far the largest known peatland complex in Amazonia.

Our results were used to build the science case for the first ever carbon-conservation project funded by the Green Climate Fund, a major, intergovernmental, UN- and UK-backed climate mitigation project. We now want to develop the science ba further to enable similar projects throughout the scheme.

Our first aim is to substantially develop and improve our current method for inferring the distributions of vegetation, peat and carbon from satellite data, by addressing fundamental gaps in our understanding of the controls on these distributions and by testing a set of technical improvements. We will then test how well our model works on floodplains in other parts of Amazonia. Ultimately we want to know how widespread peat is across the whole of Amazonia.

Our second aim is to develop, for the first time, the ability to predict and monitor future changes to tropical peatland carbon stocks. It is already possible to predict carbon accumulation patterns in northern peatlands from climatic and topographic data, and hence to predict how carbon accumulation may change under future climate scenarios (e.g. climatic drying), but a lack of basic data has prevented similar modelling from being attempted in the tropics. Recent advances in fusing modelling and remotely-sensed data are also opening new possibilities for monitoring present-day changes to the carbon cycle.

In order to achieve our second aim, we will study the pattern of peatland carbon storage through the last several thousand years, measure the rates at which litter is added to the peat and removed by decomposition today, and determine how these rates are affected by variations in hydrological regimes. We will use this information to determine, using a process-based model of peat accumulation, the conditions required for peat to accumulate. By doing so we will be able to evaluate and refine two complementary, simpler process-based models of peat distribution and carbon cycling that are suited to prediction and monitoring on a pan-tropical scale.

Planned Impact

1. Governments and carbon investment markets will benefit from a stronger science base on the distribution and vulnerability of tropical carbon stores. This is important because, in the wake of the UNFCCC Paris COP21 agreement in December 2015, increased investment of taxpayer money in carbon-based development projects will occur. For example, the UK government has committed US$1.2 billion to the UN-backed Green Climate Fund (GCF). It is important that this money is spent as efficiently as possible.

2. Stakeholders involved in developing and applying for carbon-based climate change mitigation projects will benefit by being better informed about the location and prospects of peatland 'carbon hotspots'. These stakeholders include NGOs (e.g. in Peru, PROFONANPE, a fund for promotion of protected natural areas) and governmental and quasi-autonomous agencies (e.g. our project partners IIAP), who may apply for and/or benefit from funding under schemes such as the GCF. Our remote-sensing based model of the distribution of peatland carbon has already been used to form the science base for a GCF project.

3. Organisations involved in monitoring and protecting natural resources in the tropics (for example, NGOs such as the WWF, and government bodies such as SERNANPE, the national parks agency in Peru), will benefit from improved tools for monitoring change in peatland ecosystems. In our main study area, the Pastaza-Marañón Foreland Basin, our project will enlarge the network of forest census plots and improve the quality of data collected (e.g. by installing permanent peat measurement poles). A more widely applicable tool will be provided by our evaluation of the use of data assimilation techniques to detect changes in hydrological behaviour and carbon cycling remotely.

4. Communities living in around tropical peatlands will benefit, as our science will enable carbon-based investment projects that are compatible with sustainable development goals, reducing poverty and incasing community resilience.

5. Conservation NGOs and other non-academic institutions outside our study regions will benefit from access to our methodologies and datasets, packaged in an accessible form as a toolkit for peatland carbon distribution estimation and modelling. This will facilitate other groups to carry out their own assessments of peatland carbon storage.

6. Practicing conservation scientists in western Amazonia will benefit, via a knowledge-exchange workshop hosted by Project Partners IIAP to promote peatland science and carbon conservation in the region.

7. The media and general public will benefit, via press releases and other outreach activities.


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Description Our project explicitly includes capacity-building in our partner institution (a quasi-autonomous research institution, IIAP, Peru) as an activity. We are supporting early career researchers by involving them in our research. One of these, Jhon del Aguila Pasquel, successfully co-led a funding application (jointly with us) which secured considerable further funding for IIAP, directly building on his experience and incorporating the methods that we co-developed. Our project has also enabled him to raise awareness about peatland carbon storage with a variety of governmental and non-governmental organisations. We consider this capacity-building to be an important legacy of our work in Peru.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Institutional Links Grant
Amount £99,972 (GBP)
Organisation Newton Fund 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2019 
End 02/2020
Description Knowledge Exchange and Impact Fund
Amount £1,425 (GBP)
Organisation University of St Andrews 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2018 
End 10/2018
Description Scottish Funding Council Overseas Development Assistance
Amount £2,537 (GBP)
Organisation University of St Andrews 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2018 
End 08/2018
Description Scottish Funding Council Overseas Development Assistance
Amount £17,380 (GBP)
Organisation University of St Andrews 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2018 
End 07/2019
Description Valuing Intact Tropical Peatlands: An Interdisciplinary Challenge
Amount £395,818 (GBP)
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 12/2020
Description Protecting biodiversity and sustainable livelihoods in the wetlands of Peruvian Amazonia 
Organisation Peruvian Amazon Research Institute
Country Peru 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Through co-working with the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP) during our NERC-funded research project, we built research relationships and encouraged interest in our peatland research area. This led to two researchers (John del Aguila Pasquel and Euridice Honorio Coronado) working with us on a Newton-Paulet Institutional Links application, which was funded.
Collaborator Contribution The team at IIAP have vital local knowledge and a solid track record of research into Amazonian forest ecosystems, including some work with indigenous communities. They also introduced us to new research questions around water quality, which may find applications in the water treatment industry.
Impact Successful grant application to the Newton-Paulet Institutional Links programme.
Start Year 2018
Description Presentation at the Ministry of Environment, Lima, Peru, February 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact A researcher on our project, Jhon del Aguila Pasquel, presented our work on tropical peatlands at a workshop at the MInistry of Environment, Lima, Peru.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Stakeholder Workshop, Iquitos 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact We held a stakeholder workshop in Iquitos, Peru, in collaboration with our in-country partners, to relay our group's recent findings on tropical peatlands and to gain insights into the research needs of stakeholders. About 30 attendees from a range of governmental and NGOs attended.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018