In February 2019, Dr Ian Davenport and Dr Iain McNicol, postdoctoral researchers at the University of Edinburgh, travelled to the Republic of Congo as part of the first CongoPeat field campaign. The aim was to fly a large unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over the Congo Basin to help determine how much carbon-rich peat exists below the forest canopy. Dr Ian Davenport reports on initial findings.
Our earlier work has shown that there could be about 30 billion tonnes of carbon stored in the peat under these peat forests, about three times the annual global fossil fuel output. The second field campaign (June – Aug 2019) will seek to improve the confidence of this estimate (the current 95% confidence limit is 6.3-46.8 billion tonnes – a very wide range!). We believe this carbon could be rapidly released to the atmosphere if the peat is drained for agriculture (e.g. palm oil, as has happened to similar peat forests in much of Indonesia and Malaysia), or under the increased temperatures and changed rainfall patterns of climate change. The CongoPeat project aims to reduce this uncertainty in both current carbon stocks, and what will happen in the future, in order that we can hopefully prevent the carbon being released.
Part of this effort is determining whether the peat is formed into domes, as typical with rain-fed peatlands. Initial studies suggest not, counter to our current understanding, but the satellite-based altimetry tested by Dr Greta Dargie (University of Leeds) and Dr Edward Mitchard (University of Edinburgh) in the past was not definitive – the domes could be very subtle, with the ground rising 2-3 metres over 10-15 km, and the methods they had available were not sensitive enough to detect this. Therefore we are using a drone-based system capable of measuring the land surface elevation with an accuracy of a few centimetres to give an accurate answer.