World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works


Unearthing the Secrets of Peatlands

  • Date: 13 June 2024
  • Author: Tara Doyle

If you stumbled upon a peatland, it might look like an unremarkable, open valley of shrubs, grasses, and mosses. But hidden beneath its unassuming surface lies a powerful force. Covering less than 3% of the Earth's land, these unique wetlands play an outsized role in carbon sequestration and biodiversity protection. In a recent interview, photographer and science communicator Charlie Reinertsen discussed the mystery surrounding peatlands and why we can’t afford to overlook them any longer.

Peatlands are found across the globe, from the Northern Hemisphere to the tropics. They are characterized by the presence of peat; a dense, organic material formed from layers upon layers of partially decomposed plant matter. Around ten thousand years ago, Ice Age glaciers retreated and left indentations that eventually filled with water. Plants grew but could not fully decompose, creating a deep, floating mat of vegetation. This process means peatlands are incredible carbon sinks, storing about one-third of the world’s soil carbon – more than any other terrestrial ecosystem.

In 1763, a young George Washington ordered Virginia’s vast peatlands to be drained, making way for industry and agriculture. He was not alone in wanting to get rid of them. Colonial settlers believed that breathing a bog’s air could transmit diseases, and a popular folk tale told of a mysterious green light that drew people into the swamp, never to be seen again. “Early colonists waged war against these ecosystems, draining them for development,” explained Charlie. Unfortunately, this sentiment was widespread and persisted throughout history. Around 15% of the world’s peatlands have been degraded due to various human activities. This degradation not only accelerates climate change by releasing stored carbon, but it also destroys crucial plant and animal habitat.

Upon closer examination, it’s clear that peatlands are vibrant ecosystems teeming with life. They are home to rare species, including carnivorous pitcher plants, salamanders, and other amphibians. They offer numerous ecosystem services such as water filtration and flood mitigation, and Indigenous communities have long relied on peatlands for their medicinal plants. Today, we are finally beginning to recognize their potential as a tool in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss.

In Europe, the historical use of peat as biofuel has led to significant peatland loss. However, significant restoration efforts are now underway, involving re-wetting drained peatlands and transplanting sphagnum moss from healthy areas to degraded ones. In Canada and the US, similar restoration is needed, and education and awareness will be integral to this effort. By showcasing the beauty and ecological significance of peatlands, conservationists hope to gain public support for their conservation.

As a guide for Natural Habitat Adventures, Charlie has the opportunity to introduce people to extraordinary ecosystems and challenge their misconceptions. He hopes that “by immersing people in the beauty and the mystery of these places, they will be motivated to protect them”. In the case of peatlands, only by uncovering their hidden secrets can we muster the social, economic, and political will to save them.

Charlie Reinertsen

Charlie Reinertsen lives in Saranac Lake, New York. Always chasing his next salamander sighting, Charlie is the founder of the Northern Peatlands Project. You can learn more about his work and sign up for monthly stories from the field by visiting and following @twolinedstudio on Instagram.