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Understanding the effects of human interference with our wetlands

Open University research has uncovered the role of wetlands in methane emission leading to climate change.

Key aspects of this research

  • Demonstrated that sulphur in acid rain suppresses methane emissions from wetlands
  • Led to the purchase of a large area of the Cambridgeshire Fens for conservation
  • Highlights the importance of protecting wetland ecosystems from ongoing carbon loss and destruction 

Wetlands

Open University research in the Faculty of Science is looking at how wetlands emit methane, and is exploring methods to reduce methane emissions - of interest due to methane’s contribution to climate change.

OU researchers have demonstrated that sulphur-containing acid rain suppresses methane emissions from wetlands. This discovery featured in a US Environmental Protection Agency Report to Congress (2010) and led to an investigation for the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) of the potential role of simulated sulphur pollution in mitigating emissions from UK peatlands.

A team of OU researchers, led by Professor Vincent Gauci in the Ecosystems Research Group, has focused on human influences over the stability of carbon within temperate and tropical peatlands. The team focused specifically on ecosystems that have been affected by human interference, particularly through drainage and pollution.

Great Fen purchase

Basically we proved that if sulphur is added in simulated acid rain, it allows the carbon to decompose with less methane emitted in the atmosphere

Professor Gauci, Senior Lecturer in Earth Systems/Ecosystems Science

The team’s research into the potential role of added sulphur in mitigating emissions from restored peatlands also led to an OU commission to look at the carbon balance of the Great Fen Project, a great swathe of the Cambridgeshire Fens. This contributed to a decision to purchase much of the area for conservation.  

The team's work extends to understanding other forms of carbon loss within wetland ecosystems and losses as a response to deforestation, drainage and fires in peat swamps in Borneo.

Professor Gauci, who has become a regular media commentator on methane, established MethaneNet which connects the methane community and hosts discussions on the topic.

Threat from deforested peatlands

His recent research has shown that deforested tropical peatlands haemorrhage carbon from deep within their peat soils and that tropical trees are the largest emitter of methane in their ecosystem.

“Wetlands and peatlands in particular are among the largest surface reservoirs of carbon and the single largest source of methane being released into the atmosphere,” said Professor Gauci. “Our research findings highlight the importance of protecting these ecosystems from ongoing carbon loss and destruction.” 

Professor Vincent Gauci explains the impact of OU research into methane

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