Disturbance and Restoration of Metal Contaminated Peatlands

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Environment, Education and Development


Peatlands are one of the largest terrestrial carbon stores and have persisted across the globe for millennia. They function globally as long-term sinks of atmospheric carbon dioxide and regionally as watershed sinks of toxic metals. Therefore, peatland ecosystems play a critical role in both global climate regulation and source water protection and, as such, their conservation, management and restoration have been identified as a key activity to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Human activity has contaminated peatlands over many centuries through the atmospheric deposition of pollutants released by industrial processes (e.g., manufacturing, resource extraction). Evidence of this can be found in peatlands around the world and peat core records show pronounced pollution signals associated with the Roman period in Europe, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, and widespread use of leaded petrol in the 20th century.

High rates of metal pollution can lead to the degradation of peatland processes that sustain critical ecosystem functions, such as carbon sequestration. Once damaged, these peatlands become very susceptible to additional disturbances such as fire or drainage, which can release their toxic legacy into the environment and drinking water. Release of these previously sequestered metals arguably represents one of the major contemporary global environmental challenges of the 21st century, yet this is an understudied research field and is poorly understood outside specialist areas.

In this project, we will address this knowledge gap by building an interdisciplinary, international partnership, facilitated by a core group of researchers with complementary skills and expertise. Through project meetings and field visits, we will foster a collaborative environment to share insights and knowledge to produce an agenda-setting academic paper. We will create wider international community engagement through online workshops and webinars. The findings from the project will contribute to broader debates about how to best preserve and restore contaminated peatlands in order to provide resilience in the face of future climate and land use change.


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McCarter C (2023) Peat fires and the unknown risk of legacy metal and metalloid pollution in Environmental Research Letters