For the Love of Peat

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
As we wrote this script, wildfires were ripping through Northern California burning millions of acres and filling our beautiful city with smoke. At the same time across the country, a massive tropical storm bore down on the Gulf Coast and Phoenix, Arizona recorded its 50th day of the year above 110 degrees. We know that these stories are connected to a bigger story and honestly, trying to keep on top of all the bad climate news can be unbearably depressing. They’re the kind of headlines that make you want to just not click.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And so when it seems like there’s a piece of genuinely good environmental news, I always smash that link.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Emmett FitzGerald.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Solar power price is at an all-time low. Endangered tigers making a comeback. Exxon Mobile doing so poorly it gets taken off the Dow Jones. And one morning in the summer of 2019, right after the warmest June in the history of Junes, I got a surprise dopamine hit when I saw this headline.

Roman Mars:
“Tree Planting Has Mind-Blowing Potential to Tackle Climate Crisis.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
Now to be perfectly clear, the most mind-blowing thing we could do to tackle the climate crisis is to stop burning fossil fuels. But there are also ways that we can soak up some of the CO2 that we’ve already put into the atmosphere.

Emmett FitzGerald:
We’re developing machines to do this, but trees and other plants actually do it naturally. They take in carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their leaves and branches and trunks.

Roman Mars:
And so some scientists in Switzerland tried to calculate how much carbon could be removed if we planted as many trees as possible all around the world.

Roman Mars:
They published a paper in the journal “Nature” arguing that if humans planted a trillion trees, it could remove one-third of all the CO2 we had put up there in the first place.

Emmett FitzGerald:
It was a dramatic finding that led to a lot of dramatic headlines and the way the paper was being described, you would think the trees were some kind of climate change panacea that they were the key to fixing global warming. And in the months that followed, it felt like the tree planting theory was being aggressively put into practice.

NEWS MONTAGE:

[PLANT A TREE TO FIGHT THE EFFECTS OF FOSSIL FUELS.]

[WE START IN ETHIOPIA WHERE A HUGE CAMPAIGN HAS BEEN LAUNCHED TO PLANT MORE THAN FOUR BILLION TREES THIS SUMMER.]

[VOLUNTEERS IN INDIA PLANTED MORE THAN 66 MILLION TREES IN JUST 12 HOURS IN A RECORD BREAKING-]

Roman Mars:
There’s even a tree planting anthem.

[HOW ABOUT 20 MILLION? 20 MILLION TREES! MAKING 20 TRILLION LITTLE BABY LEAVES.]

Emmett FitzGerald:
Eventually, the tree planting gospel found the unlikeliest of champions.

Roman Mars:
President Donald Trump expressed his love of tree planting at the World Economic Forum. And then Trump, the man who pulled the US out of the Paris climate treaty, signed onto something called “The Trillion Trees Initiative.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
On Earth Day, President Trump gathered the press on the White House lawn to watch him plant a tree of his own.

President Donald Trump:
“As a sign of our dedication in a few moments, the first lady and I will plant a maple tree right here on the south lawn of the White House. And wherever the tree is, where is this tree now? That’s a beautiful straight trunk. That’s an AAA tree.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
The AAA tree was already in the ground. But the president, the first lady, members of the cabinet picked up their golden shovels and threw some dirt in the hole.

President Donald Trump:
“Okay.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against trees. In fact, I love trees just as much as the next outdoorsy guy from Vermont. But I’ve also been reporting on climate change long enough to know that there are no silver bullets. And the way people were talking about tree planting felt a little simplistic. It was like here’s this enormously complicated issue of climate change and we’re just going to boil it down to a slogan: Plant trees. Save the Earth.

Richard Lindsay:
Well, whenever I hear that phrase or that discourse, my stress level goes up enormously.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Richard Lindsay, a scientist at the University of East London Sustainability Research Institute.

Richard Lindsay:
Everybody’s saying, let’s plant a million trees. Let’s plant a billion trees. Yes, I’m all in favor of that, but let’s plant the right tree in the right place.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And Richard has personal experience watching a lot of trees get planted in the wrong place.

Roman Mars:
Back in the 1980s, he saw firsthand the impacts of a controversial tree planting scheme in Scotland that ended up threatening one of the most special ecosystems in the world.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The trees weren’t being planted to fight climate change. I want to be really clear about that. Very few people were talking about climate change back then, but the story of what happened in Scotland should still serve as a cautionary tale for our tree planting efforts today because forests aren’t the only ecosystems that store carbon. And so when we do plant trees, we need to be really careful about where we’re planting them and what happens after they go in the ground.

Roman Mars:
The British Isles used to be covered in forests, but after centuries of converting forest land to agriculture, the iconic British Woodland was largely a thing of the past. By the 20th century, Great Britain was importing wood because it didn’t have enough of its own.

Roman Mars:
And so in the 1980s, the government started using tax breaks to encourage private citizens, to fund tree planting efforts around the country. The goal was to boost the UK’s timber supply.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And it was a really good tax break, especially for the super-rich.

Richard Lindsay:
So we had people like the band Genesis, they’re accountants got them involved in this. Yes, a number of sort of high profile names who all invested in this having been convinced that it was a good thing because, of course, planting trees is a good thing, is it not?

Emmett FitzGerald:
But questions started to emerge about where exactly these trees were going to go. In order for this to work, investors needed large tracks of undeveloped unwanted land. And there was one place that met that criteria perfectly. It was called the Flow Country.

Roman Mars:
The Flow Country is a vast open area in far north Scotland that looks almost like the arctic tundra.

Richard Lindsay:
The term tundra comes from the Finnish word tunturia, which means beyond the tree line. And so that really tells you something about the overall landscape. It’s essentially treeless.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The Flow Country is what’s called a blanket bog. It’s actually the largest blanket bog in all of Europe. The best way to appreciate the landscape might be in an airplane. From the sky, it looks like a Persian rug streaked with colorful sphagnum mosses and dotted with little pools of water.

Roman Mars:
But it’s harder to appreciate when you’re on the ground.

Richard Lindsay:
The majority of the landscape will be this wet, boggy soft, really quite colorful carpet of bulk mosses. So as you walk across it, it’s a bit like walking across a sprung mattress, except you need rubber boots.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah. A soggy mattress.

Richard Lindsay:
Soggy is a very good word for it, yes.

Roman Mars:
There’s the saying in Scotland that summer is the best day of the year. It’s cold and damp and gets an enormous amount of rainfall, but otherwise, it’s perfect. It’s truly is one of my favorite places on Earth.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah and beautiful. Scotland’s terrible weather actually creates the perfect conditions for an incredible substance to form. It’s called peat. And it’s what the Flow Country is made of. The land is so saturated. There’s very little oxygen and it’s really hard for plant matter to break down. And so over thousands and thousands of years, this partially decomposed material, or peat, has been slowly accumulating. In some parts of the Flow Country, the peat is now more than 30 feet deep.

Roman Mars:
And the amazing thing about peat from a climate perspective is that it stores a ton of carbon.

Merritt Turetsky:
I fell in love with peatlands because they are these beautiful ecosystems, but they also are global powerhouses for carbon storage.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Merritt Turetsky, or the Queen of Peat as she’s known on Twitter. She’s the Director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at CU Boulder. And she says that peatlands are like these dense underground pockets of carbon.

Merritt Turetsky:
So the amount of carbon stored in peatlands on a meter square basis is often 10 times, 15 times higher than that same area of land in a forest or in an agricultural setting. These are true hotspots when it comes to protecting carbon in soils and keeping that carbon out of the atmosphere.

Roman Mars:
Peatlands around the world actually contain more carbon than all the worlds of vegetation combined.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But back in the 80s, most people didn’t know about this incredible power of peat. If anything, bogs were seen as unpleasant, scary places to be avoided.

Roman Mars:
In part, because they were filled with dead people — ancient bogged bodies that had been pickled for centuries in the anaerobic muck.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Some of these bodies appear to be ritual sacrifices from the bronze and iron ages.

Merritt Turetsky:
Once those bodies were tossed into the bog, they became very efficiently preserved. Because of those same conditions that protect peat from decomposition, the bog bodies didn’t decompose.

Roman Mars:
And occasionally these eerily well-preserved corpses would surface from the bogs of Northern Europe.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Needless to say in Scotland, the spooky soggy peatland wasn’t exactly a popular spot. The Flow Country was known locally by an acronym MAMBA.

Richard Lindsay:
Famously. It was called MAMBA country. Miles, miles of bugger-all.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And so in the 1980s, when the forest industry started looking for large tracks of undeveloped land to plant trees, the Flow Country was an obvious choice.

Richard Lindsay:
It was seen as a wasteland. So the local people had been convinced by the forest industry that this was going to bring a new economy to the area. So of course local people were really excited.

Roman Mars:
What happened next was kind of a race between the forestry groups who started draining the peat bogs and planting trees and conservation groups who began trying to catalog all the biodiversity in this fragile landscape before it was completely covered up.

Richard Lindsay:
That’s where I was really sucked into the whole Flow Country story because essentially I was tasked with running a survey program to establish whether the Flow Country contained anything of importance, anything that we should be concerned about losing.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Richard assembled a team of scientists, they packed up tents and camping gear, cameras and food, and took the train from London over 400 miles north to the tippy top of Scotland. And right away, Richard was taken with the place.

Richard Lindsay:
It was extraordinary, first of all, in the silence.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But pretty quickly he got acquainted with the sounds and smells of the place too. For weeks, he and his team would tramp around on top of the soggy mattress, documenting all of the wildlife in the bog — carnivorous plants, dragonflies, water beetles, loons, and golden plovers. It was tough going, but apart from the wet socks, Richard remembers these long walks fondly.

Richard Lindsay:
Because you sort of bounced gently along, there’s a sort of squish squish underfoot. And this lovely scent of all the heathers the various other flowering plants that wafted up around you.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And in the end, Richard and his team determined that the Flow Country wasn’t a wasteland at all, but a thriving wetland habitat that had been underappreciated for centuries.

Richard Lindsay:
Essentially, we found that the range of ecosystem types was like nothing, well, really that’s been described anywhere else in the world.

Roman Mars:
But as all this was happening, the tree planting was already underway. And so at the same time, Richard was discovering the secrets of this delicate landscape, the forestry companies were tearing it up.

Emmett FitzGerald:
They plowed up the bogs, drained out all that water, and planted non-native quick growing conifers. Pretty soon little patches of evergreen forests were sprouting up all across the Flow Country. Although Richard says “forest” isn’t really the right word.

Richard Lindsay:
No, they’re plantations. Plantations established with agricultural densities in mind.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Rows and rows of Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine packed tightly together.

Roman Mars:
And these dense plantations were terrible places for native wildlife. They quickly filled up with predators that scared off many of the birds that Richard and his team were just beginning to learn about. The peatlands were turning into a tree farm.

Richard Lindsay:
So yeah, pretty soul-destroying.

Emmett FitzGerald:
As they did their work, Richard and the other scientists were called to testify in local meetings about the forestry project. And they had to argue that this seemingly empty worthless landscape was actually worth protecting.

Richard Lindsay:
And essentially it’s our equivalent of the tropical rainforests.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But the forest industry didn’t see it that way.

Richard Lindsay:
I just have this general memory of being shouted at a lot for a very long time. They were banging the table and they were shouting at us and demanding to know what we thought we were doing. To which our response was, “Well, we think we’re doing our job.” Our job was to identify important areas of the nation’s wildlife heritage. And that’s exactly what we were doing.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Was it weird at the time to be arguing that trees were an environmental problem?

Richard Lindsay:
Oh, that was so difficult, yes. But it’s like everything. A medication is a good thing when used in the right way in the right place. Used in the wrong way in the wrong place, it’s a poison. And that was the tricky message that we had to try and get across.

Roman Mars:
But over time, public opinion began to turn against the tree planting. A lot of that had to do with the fact that it seemed like an egregious form of tax avoidance, but the message about the peatlands was also starting to get through.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The government eventually agreed to protect about half of the peatland that Richard and his team had surveyed. And then a couple of months later, they completely ended the tax scheme.

Richard Lindsay:
A colleague phoned me and just said, “It’s gone.” And I said, “What’s gone?” “The forestry ground scheme. It’s gone.” I don’t remember. I had to sit down. I was so surprised.

Emmett FitzGerald:
It was a big win for the bog and the conservationists fighting to protect it. And in the decades that followed the way people saw the Flow Country really started to shift. It went from being a place people avoided to a place that people wanted to see — the largest blanket bog in all of Europe.

Richard Lindsay:
And people were coming to visit it to see this amazing landscape and all of this gradually chipped away at the idea of “this is useless wasteland” and people began to relate to it as their landscape, their precious landscape.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But a lot of damage had been done. Over 150,000 acres of the Flow Country had been drained and planted with trees.

Roman Mars:
These trees never really grew very well. They were short and stubby and not very useful as timber, but the plantations pushed out native wildlife that depended on the bog and damaged the precious peat that was storing all that carbon.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And the Flow Country wasn’t the only place where this kind of thing happened. Chile, to take one example, started incentivizing tree planting around the same time as the UK. And while they did plant a lot of trees, the effort led to a decline in biodiversity and negligible climate benefits. In Alberta, Canada, they drained large swaths of bog in order to plant trees, again, starting in the 80s. But most of those trees burned down in the Fort McMurray fire of 2016, in part because the once wet ground had been drained dry.

Roman Mars:
Back in the 1980s, Richard Lindsey and his colleagues were only concerned about the biodiversity and the underappreciated peat bog. But in recent years, as the urgency of the climate crisis grows, there’s been an increased focus on carbon storage in ecosystems.

Roman Mars:
Scientists were studying the carbon dynamics and kelp forests and seagrass beds, and peatlands in particular have been getting a lot of attention for their carbon-storing powers. You know you’ve gone mainstream when Alec Baldwin is talking about you in a PSA for the UN.

[ALEC BALDWIN: PEATLANDS ARE CRUCIAL TO FIGHT CLIMATE CHANGE.]

Roman Mars:
And here’s the thing about peatlands.

[ALEC BALDWIN: THEY MATTER FOR THE PLANET BECAUSE THEY ACTUALLY STORE TWICE AS MUCH CARBON AS ALL THE WORLD’S FOREST TOGETHER WHILE COVERING LESS THAN 3% OF THE LAND’S SURFACE.]

Roxane Andersen:
So peatlands are the most efficient terrestrial carbon sink on the planet.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Roxane Andersen. She’s been studying peatlands for a while now at the Environmental Research Institute in Scotland. And for decades, it felt like she was laboring away in some obscure corner of academia. She didn’t have journalists like me bugging her for interviews, but that’s changing.

Roxane Andersen:
I think this year alone, I must have given something like 15 or 20 interviews.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But Andersen says that when it comes to carbon storage, peatlands still don’t get the attention that forests do. She thinks it’s because all of the carbon in a peatland is below ground.

Roxane Andersen:
I think that it’s because it’s not visible. That’s why the name of your podcast really resonated. If you look at a forest, you see the trees, you see the vegetation, you see where the carbon is. You see why it’s taking up carbon.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But even though the carbon in a peatland is hidden underground, it’s not locked away forever. Just as a forest can burn down, a peatland can be degraded. It can be gobbled up for agriculture or ranching.

Roman Mars:
And when that happens, a lot of its carbon goes up into the atmosphere and the carbon sink becomes a carbon source.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And that’s what happened in the Flow Country. Except in this case, the crop that was gobbling up the peatland was trees. When you drain a peat bog to plant trees, it releases carbon. And then as the trees grow, their roots impact the way the carbon in the soil is processed.

Roxane Andersen:
And the carbon losses from the soil can actually exceed the amount of carbon that’s taken up in the tree. So planting trees on peat, on the peat particularly, is really, really not a good idea. It leads to unintended consequences of basically losing more carbon than then you can gain through the trees.

Alec Baldwin:
And so now in the Flow Country, the best thing for the climate may actually be to cut trees down.

Paul Turner:
It’s quite claustrophobic being in some of these dark dump plantations. And so when you start taking them down and start opening up the landscape again, in some ways it’s actually quite cathartic.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Paul Turner a warden with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. And in 1995, the RSPB purchased a 50,000-acre reserve in the Flow Country on land that had been heavily planted with trees. Since then, they’ve been working to restore the bog.

Paul Turner:
We’ve really spent over 25 years trying to repair damage that was done in the 70s and 80s to bits of the peatland.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Some of the contractors doing this repair work are actually the same local people who drain the bog back in the 80s. First, they cut the trees down and haul them out. Then the crucial next step is to rewet the soil. They build dams in the peat to try to return the water table to its normal level and get that soggy bog back.

Roman Mars:
A lot of this work is done with heavy machinery and it does not look pretty.

Paul Turner:
And yeah, you have days where you think actually this is quite a destructive process, but when you start seeing some of the work that we did 10, 15 years ago, it really makes you feel quite good about what you’re trying to achieve with it.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Roxane Andersen has studied the bogs that Paul Turner and the RSPB have restored to try and understand the climate impacts.

Roxane Andersen:
And what we’ve found is that when you take trees down from a peatland and do the restoration initially, it releases carbon. That’s not very surprising because of the kind of physical damage that you have to do in terms of cutting the wood and everything else.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But over the course of decades of restoration, the bogs have switched back from a carbon source to a carbon sink.

Roxane Andersen:
So effectively returning this kind of carbon benefits or climate benefits to peatlands.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But as they do this work, Paul Turner keeps running into the same problem that Richard Lindsay did 30 years ago. It’s hard to explain to people why trees in this very specific situation are bad for the ecosystem.

Paul Turner:
There are a lot of people that don’t really understand why we are cutting trees down. It’s because surely planting trees is the best thing to do. And I mentioned before, planting trees and the right place is definitely a really good thing to do.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Paul is not anti-tree. In fact, the RSPB actually helps manage another piece of land in Scotland in the Cairngorm Mountains where they are actively planting trees in an effort to restore the forest and sequester carbon.

Roman Mars:
And the Scottish government is helping fund both of these efforts. Scotland has a goal of restoring over 600,000 acres of peat bog by 2030. And at the same time, they want to plant 30,000 acres of new forest each year. They are planting trees in one place just as they’re cutting trees down in another.

Paul Turner:
It’s understanding that not all habitats are equal, that not all habitats should have trees on them. And that when we’re talking about climate change mitigation, that one answer doesn’t apply to every problem.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Forests are great, but they aren’t great everywhere.

Forrest Fleischman:
Yeah. I mean, I love forests, but I love other ecosystems too.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is a forest scientist named Forrest. Forrest Fleischman.

Forrest Fleischman:
Yeah. So I mean, one of the big mistakes that the Trillion Tree paper made is they sort of said, “Well, areas without trees don’t have carbon.” And that’s not true because areas without trees have carbon below ground.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And not just peatlands, healthy grasslands also store carbon underground.

Roman Mars:
So instead of just thinking about how many trees we can plant, we should be thinking about all the different ways we can maximize carbon storage in any given landscape without sacrificing biodiversity. That might mean restorative peatlands or protecting healthy grasslands and forests. And it might mean planting more trees.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And if planting trees is the right thing for a landscape, we’re going to have to do more than just plant them. Forrest Fleischman has studied tree planting efforts that are being done for climate change. And he’s found that often they fail because all of the focus is on that initial act of getting the saplings in the ground.

Forrest Fleischman:
Because it’s something that a politician can walk in and do and get a picture taken and be on the front page of the newspaper or be on TV.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But then often in the years that follow, those trees get cut down by people or eaten by cows or burned in a fire.

Forrest Fleischman:
So this dialogue, it says, “Oh, we need to plant a trillion trees.” Well, actually we don’t need to plant a trillion trees. Let’s say that trillion trees is right. We need to make sure that a trillion trees grow.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And making sure that trees grow is more complicated than planting them. Fleischman says the first step is to stop cutting down the healthy forests that we have left. We need to stop illegal logging and boycott the companies that are driving deforestation.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And work to protect the rights of indigenous people who are often the best protectors of forests and where we do plant new forests, we need to work with local people to make sure that they benefit from the new trees and are invested in keeping them growing.

Forrest Fleischman:
So when we start thinking about it this way, it really becomes a political and economic problem, not a technical tree planting problem.

Emmett FitzGerald:
I think that people get really excited about tree planting in part because it’s a solution that seems to exist outside of politics and economics. It’s this simple, natural solution that doesn’t require us to pass massive legislation or build a whole new energy system.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But the truth is that climate change is fundamentally a complicated political and economic and technological problem. There is no one perfect solution, but we need to solve it anyway.

Roman Mars:
Bogs are the best. We have so many more cool facts about bogs after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So Emmett is back and we’re going to talk about bogs.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, so one of the things that I found interesting learning all about bogs was all the language around them. You’ve got so many different words for bogs

Merritt Turetsky:
Bog, fen, mire, moor, marsh, swamp, pocosin.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is Merritt Turetsky again, the Queen of Peat from our story. And she says that these aren’t synonyms necessarily, there are subtle differences between all these different words.

Merritt Turetsky:
Some of them are rooted in ecology and wetland classification. Some of them are regional.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But there’s also this whole metaphorical side to bog language, wetland language. We use a lot of these words a lot, actually, not in a peatland-science way, but in this more poetic, metaphorical sense, and usually, bog language connotes stuckness.

Roman Mars:
Right, like getting bogged down in something, yeah.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right, exactly. But there’s a lot of other examples, like a quagmire-

Roman Mars:
Oh right, yeah.

Emmett FitzGerald:
… is a type of bog, and you can get mired in something. A mire is a type of bog. Or actually I think a bog is a type of mire. It’s like a square/rectangle situation. A morass is another word for a kind of marshy, boggy wetland, but also a confusing situation that you might get stuck in.

Roman Mars:
So what is the explanation for why we use these words so much when most people probably don’t experience bogs on a really regular basis?

Emmett FitzGerald:
I think that, for Merritt Turetsky, she says that it’s like even though bogs are these places that we don’t necessarily spend a lot of time, we’ve always… humans have always been fascinated by them. They’ve always represented this almost supernatural in-between space.

Merritt Turetsky:
And I think because of the mysteriousness of that, not being land, not being water. Not being fully alive, not being fully dead, they are really fascinating to us. So bogs in movies, in pop culture, in literature often represent a place where people can hide from society or where you can potentially get lost.

Emmett FitzGerald:
This is totally true in books and movies. I remember in Withering Heights, you have the moors, which are often, are presented throughout the book as this foreboding landscape where they might, Catherine and Heathcliff might get lost or drown. Or in Lord Of The Rings, they wind their way through these marshes that are filled with dead faces looking up at them.

[SAM FROM LORD OF THE RINGS: THERE ARE DEAD THINGS, DEAD FACES IN THE WATER.]

Roman Mars:
When I was a kid, the one that really got me was the swamp of sadness in the NeverEnding Story. Where his horse actually gets swallowed up in it. It’s just so tragic, so upsetting.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, totally. I almost pulled a clip from that, but it was too unpleasant to listen to this little voice-

Roman Mars:
I know.

Emmett FitzGerald:
… screaming about his drowning horse. It’s very sad.

Roman Mars:
It’s the worst.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The one that really comes to mind for me is the Princess Bride.

Merritt Turetsky:
The characters are traversing or navigating their way through a fire swamp where bursts flames come up through the soil, and they have to dodge these hazards.

[WESTLEY: I MEAN, WHAT ARE THE THREE TERRORS OF THE FIRE SWAMP? ONE, THE FLAMES SPURT. NO PROBLEM, THERE’S A POPPING SOUND PROCEEDING EACH, WE CAN AVOID THAT. TWO, THE LIGHTNING SAND. BUT YOU WERE CLEVER ENOUGH TO DISCOVER WHAT THAT LOOKS LIKE. SO IN THE FUTURE, WE CAN AVOID THAT TOO.]

[BUTTERCUP: WESTLEY, WHAT ABOUT THE R.O.U.S’S.]

[WESTLEY: RODENTS OF UNUSUAL SIZE? I DON’T THINK THEY EXIST.]

Roman Mars:
Yeah, how could you forget the rodents of unusual size?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right, and the R.O.U.S’s obviously don’t really exist, but Turetsky says that some aspects of the fire swamp aren’t quite as far-fetched as you might imagine.

Merritt Turetsky:
There are gasses, some of them are flammable that are produced in these very wet, saturated bog systems. We don’t often see flames leaping up through a bog system, but there is a lot of methane produced because of this really anaerobic decomposition and that methane actually could be flammable.

Roman Mars:
That is shocking, that it could be based in any kind of reality. I mean, come to think of it, the dead people in the bogs, like the Lord Of The Rings, that also feels like a reference to the Bog people that we touch on in the main body of the episode.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right, bog bodies. Yeah, and so, in general, I think bogs are portrayed as these dark, scary places as we’ve seen throughout this. Usually, there is some truth to that. They are hard to walk through and you can get stuck in the mud, and there are weird gases. So it’s like a caricature based in some amount of real, accurate details of what it’s like. But it also falls really short in fully appreciating them for the incredible places that they are.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, so I have to admit, bogs are my favorite ecosystem. I think they are so cool. I used to study botany in the Midwest. There’s much more bogs. There’re no bogs here, really on the West coast to speak of, but there’re real bogs there. I like a cranberry bog, I like a quaking bug. I mean, a quaking bug is where the Sphagnum grows so thick that trees can grow on it. If you get enough people, they can jump on the Sphagnum and trees can sway from you jumping on the ground. Bogs are amazing, I love them.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, I wanted to pitch this story, because I wanted go to Scotland and check out these bogs.

Roman Mars:
I’m so sorry.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Because I also think bogs are cool, and then that immediately became an impossibility with the COVID situation. But can I share one cool bog fact that I didn’t get to work into the story?

Roman Mars:
Absolutely, go for it.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So did you know that bogs breathe?

Roman Mars:
No, I did not know that.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So there’s this common phenomenon in peatland science called bog-breathing.

Merritt Turetsky:
And what we mean by that, is that the surface of a bog, the surface of the vegetation layer moves up and down. It expands, or it shrinks, depending on the hydrology and where the water table is sitting. This is actually an adaptive trait. It means when conditions are wet, the water table adjusts and the whole peat layer adjusts to that shift. When things get dry, again, that peat layer responds.

Roman Mars:
So it’s not really breathing as in respiration? It’s more like a metaphor of movement when did they say bog-breathing?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, it’s almost like, I think of it as the bog is like a giant’s belly that’s rising and falling as the ecosystem breathes in and out.

Merritt Turetsky:
It takes on more space and pushes up to the sky, almost like your diaphragm would expand when you’re taking a deep breath. But then that can also contract down and that breath is then expelled.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And this isn’t a new phenomenon. Scientists have known about bog-breathing for a really long time.

Roxane Andersen:
But it’s incredibly difficult to measure.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So this is Roxane Andersen again.

Roxane Andersen:
So if you think about it, trying to go and measure how much the surface moves up and down, and that’s in the order of millimeters. If you try to measure that by walking onto the bog, which is an unstable and wobbly surface, it’s going to be very difficult.

Roman Mars:
It’s like trying to measure the surface of a water bed, it constantly moves underneath your feet. That must be really frustrating if you’re trying to measure it.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, exactly. So Roxane Andersen and her colleagues have been looking at ways that they could measure this without actually going out and trying to measure the surface manually.

Roxane Andersen:
And what we’ve been looking at, is using a satellite that uses radar.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So basically using radar from a satellite to send a signal down to the bog every few days, and getting measurements on how that surface level is changing over time. What Roxane and her colleagues have been trying to figure out, is can they use that bog-breathing pattern from the satellite data as an indicator of the overall health of the peatland.

Roman Mars:
It’s like a doctor putting a stethoscope to your back and saying, “Deep breath.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right, exactly. And I think gathering that data could help scientists understand whether a peatland is functioning as a healthy peatland and a robust carbon sink, or whether it’s degraded in some way that you maybe didn’t know and might be actually emitting carbon.

Roman Mars:
So what’s the pattern they’re finding and how do you tell if the breathing of a bog is healthy or not?

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, I asked Roxane that.

Roxane Andersen:
So what we found is that healthy peatland, if you like, they have one peak and one trough, roughly every year. The peak is usually, if they’re really healthy, it’s usually going to be in the autumn with quite a high amplitude. And then the trough is going to be in the spring. So you have this cycle of peaks and troughs.

Emmett FitzGerald:
One big breath in and one big breath out every year?

Roxane Andersen:
Yeah, and then the more degraded it gets, the more it just becomes no peaks, no troughs, just a flatter line.

Roman Mars:
Well, you don’t want to see a flat line, like an EKG. You don’t want that.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right, and Roxane says that this new way of gathering bog breathing data is actually really important, or could be really important for peatland conservation globally.

Roxane Andersen:
I think that the interesting thing, for me, about this is that it completely changes the way that we can understand peatland globally because we can just do that. If we spend the time to do the validation, like we’ve done here for any type of peatland, you might end up with knowing what the signal or the breathing pattern for a particular type of peatland is. And you might be able to detect anomalies that are diagnostic of degradation for peatlands that are impossible to reach, or very difficult to reach, that are really remote or impossible to visit on a regular basis.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And this is really important because so many peatlands are in these remote locations, and they’re places that humans have tended to avoid. We’re actually still discovering new peatlands and often they’re really hard to access. So it could be this really helpful tool in mapping and understanding the role that peatlands are playing as carbon sinks or as carbon sources.

Roman Mars:
I mean, one of the things that I think is really interesting about the story, is that the peatlands are doing a lot of good if they’re healthy. But if they’re not healthy, they’re actually kind of a problem, because they released that carbon that they’ve stored.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Right, exactly. It’s super important that we find out where they are and monitor them and really are invested in keeping them healthy all around the world. All of our well-being is caught up in that carbon beneath these hotspots all over the world.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Oh, that’s so cool. Well, I love bogs even more now. Thank you so much, Emmett.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Yeah, of course.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Emmett FitzGerald. Mix by Bryson Barnes. Music by Sean Real. Our senior producer is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Chris Berube, Joe Rosenberg, Katie Mingle, Abby Madan, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks this week to Jesse Reynolds from UCLA, who we also spoke to for this story. And also to writers, Virginia Gewin and Sharon Levy, whose articles about the Flow Country got us interested in the region. If you want to read more about peatland restoration in Scotland, we have links to their fantastic articles on our website. It’s 99pi.org.

We are a founding member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative, listener-supported 100% artist-owned podcasts in the world. Find them all at radiotopia.fm.

You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. You can now order our first book, “The 99% Invisible City” at 99pi.org/book. We have links to purchase it anywhere you get your books including signed editions and the audiobook and if you did get the book and enjoyed it, review it somewhere. That’s a huge boost to us. For all your other 99pi needs, look no further than 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

Producer Emmett FitzGerald spoke with Richard Lindsay, a scientist at the University of East London’s Sustainability Research Institute; Merritt Turetsky, Associate Professor at the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado Boulder; Jesse Reynolds, a fellow in environmental law and policy at UCLA School of Law; Roxane Andersen, Senior Research Fellow at the Environmental Research Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands; Paul Turner, Warden for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; Forrest Fleischman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota

  1. Sean Redmond

    I spent my weekends in the late 80s and early 90s in Ireland help fill in drains in bogs in Ireland. Bog, by the way, is the Irish (Gaelic) word for ‘soft’.
    Bogs *are* wonderful. They are great to walk on as well as being an ecological wonder.
    Unfortunately, the Irish don’t have a great record in saving their bogs. Bord na Mona (the Peat Board – the government agency tasked with exploiting peat bogs) have a lot to do with this.

  2. Sean Redmond

    Another interesting anecdote that we learnt in school about bogs has to do with the pH of the moss. Bogs are acidic. They have a very low pH and, as a consequence, are quite antiseptic. During WW1 soldiers in the Flanders used the moss as temporary bandages for wounds until they were able to get proper bandages.

    Bogs also take a looong time to grow – about a hundred years to get the ecosystem going in a self-sustaining way, if my memory is correct.

  3. Irmeli

    Tundra comes from Russian, not Finnish. The Finnish word Tunturi means fell, as in a flattened mountain. Finland doesn’t have any tundra.

  4. Christian

    Roman must have meant there’s no bogs in San Fransisco, or clearly didn’t finish his botany studies. Where are cranberries grow in close proximity to dense biodiverse rainforests on the west coast? Oregon. This misspoken counterfactual is forgivable because the episode is so excellent in laying out such an important and nuanced environmental strategy. I’m sure I’m not the only Oregonian, surrounded by marshlands, that instantly objected to this passing comment.

  5. Breck

    My sister moved to Co Galway, Ireland in ~1961, when I was 11. I remember hearing people there talk about burning peat to generate heat in homes. That now seems like a doubly bad idea (is it still done?) – losing the carbon capture of the peat in the bog, and then releasing the carbon from the peat as it is burned.

    Years later, I moved to London for work, and lived there for five years. Two common vernacular terms included the word “bog”: One involved “bog” as a term for the loo, or bathroom. The other is the term “bog standard”, meaning run of the mill or common.

    Thanks for all the shows, and for the book. Yours is my favorite podcast out of a wide range I listen to.

    1. Budo

      It makes sense. I have literally never heard it said that way, though.

  6. Pádraig

    While this was a great podcast/article I have one major problem, the use of the term “british isles” this is a colonialist and imperialist term that the Irish government actually has an official position completely rejecting its use.

    The team at 99percentinvisible usually do a great job avoiding offending people which makes this such a surprising oversight.

    I would really appreciate if there term was avoided in future.
    Thank you.

  7. Teun Theijse

    Here in the Netherlands the country was full of peatland once. But over the centuries we dug a lot of it up as a fuel.

  8. Darwin C Weyh

    Watching PBS’s “The Age of Nature” “Understanding” episode and they talked about Bogs so now I’m so confused.

  9. Paul Ryan

    I spent many days tromping around peat bogs in the New Jersey pine barrens (acres and acres of dwarf trees and tea colored water) in botany classes undergrad. Mysterious places. Carniverous pitcher plants, sundews and if you were lucky, ripe huckleberry bushes. Finding a bog with a nice ‘eye’ of clear water at the center was a treat. You get a real sense of a big living organism walking on a floating bobbing mat of peat. Take a magnifying glass and look closely at the architecture in mosses and lichens in these special places. It’s a sci-fi landscape in small scale. At night the soundscape is something else, tree frogs, crickets, Katydids, and the haunting songs of whipper wills.

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