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Peatlands are a massive carbon sink, but they are burning more often due to climate change


In recent years, Sam Hunter has noticed a difference in the peatland surrounding his community in northern Ontario.

“I remember two years ago we built a fire while we were fishing on top of the snow, and then I noticed that we had to pour water on that fire,” he said.

“Even though it was winter, there was a lot of snow and it was still burning two days later.”

Hunter is from the Cree community of Peawanuck, nestled along the Winisk River south of Hudson Bay. He’s the natural resource monitor in the community, which sits so far north it is surrounded by peatlands — a type of wetland where waterlogged conditions prevent plants from fully decomposing.

Sam Hunter is from the Cree community of Peawanuck and has noticed a warming climate change the local environment. (Submitted by Sam Hunter)

By definition, peatlands are wet environments, but a warming climate has meant they sometimes get dry enough for fires to take hold.

“When it burns in the summer, it just burns right down until there’s nothing left. It will just keep on burning,” Hunter said.

Because peatlands contain so much plant material, they are massive carbon sinks — natural or artificial sources that absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they release.

Carbon sinks can also include forests, the ocean and soil; they differ from carbon sources, such as the burning of fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide (which can warm the planet, contributing to climate change) into the atmosphere. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature says peatlands make up the world’s largest natural terrestrial carbon store.

A ‘peatland superpower’

Sarah Finkelstein is a professor with the University of Toronto’s department of earth sciences and works closely with Indigenous communities in Ontario’s far north to better understand peatlands.

Finkelstein calls Canada a “peatland superpower” because the unique wetlands cover over 1 million square kilometres of the country’s landmass.

“They’re a very important part of our landscape and the history of our landscape,” she said.

Part of Finkelstein’s research is looking back more than 10,000 years ago, when the last ice age ended in what is now Canada, and how peatlands have changed.

“We can collect core samples of that mud and actually understand something about the history of those environments, like climate history, vegetation change, the impacts of disturbance,” she said.

Boats make their way across a wide river with large plumes of smoke obscuring the sun
Heavy smoke from a fire blanketing Fort Albany and Kashechewan, where 71 evacuees were taken on June 21. (Micheline Loone/Facebook)

Finkelstein said peatland fires did happen naturally before humans started burning fossil fuels, but they were a once-in-a-century event.

“When the water table drops because you’ve got a hot summer, for example, that’s when these peatlands can be vulnerable to wildfire,” she said.

“So it certainly occurs naturally, but the number of fires has been increasing in recent years, and the severity of those fires as well. And it’s pretty unusual to see.”

Fort Albany forest fire

In June, Fort Albany First Nation was evacuated due to wildfires.

The Cree community is near the James Bay coast and surrounded by the boreal forest and peatlands.

Community members shared photos and videos on social media of massive smoke plumes above the forest’s edge, with the low-lying peatlands nearby.

Finkelstein said while the changing climate poses a threat to peatlands, they are resilient ecosystems.

Most of Ontario’s peatlands are still intact, particularly around the Hudson and James Bay lowlands, she said.

But for that environment, and massive carbon sink, to stay intact, it needs to be protected from development and drainage, Finkelstein added.

Morning North4:58Peatlands may be under threat due to climate change

Peatlands are an important ecosystem in the far north. What happens to them when there are more wildfires? We learned more from a researcher who does a lot of work in the north.


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