Researchers collect a peat core from the Great Dismal Swamp.
Source: Kristen Koefke, USGS Florence Bascom Geoscience Center.
Peatlands cover just 2-3% of the earth but sink nearly a third of its soil carbon. (9) Carbon stored in peats has reduced global temperatures by 1.5-2 degrees Celsius over the past 10,000 years. (10) Peat sinks not only carbon but airborne and waterborne heavy metals that become tied up in it. Peat fires create conditions for not only carbon but toxic elements generated by industry to spill—into bodies and other sinks, and into the future. (11) Post-fire movement of metals happens through combustion, ash and charcoal deposition, and hydrologic means. One study of land and peat fires in Lithuania shows a 21-80% increase in the concentration of metals in rivers after mobilization by fire. (12)
Accumulation rates and concentrations of elements point to broad historical events as well as local activities. Mercury (Hg) and lead (Pb) bind particularly well with organic acids in peat. There are demonstrated levels of both in the water, sediment, and biotic communities in the Okefenokee above and beyond what is natural for peatlands likely as a product of emissions from fossil fuel combustion (coal in particular), mining, and incineration. (13) (14) Ditching and herbicide use by timber companies adjacent to the swamp is also thought to have been a factor. (15) Elsewhere, peatland drainage has been shown to impact mercury concentration; a Finnish study measured an increase in mercury with peat disturbance and drainage in a forest lake compared with another lake in a farming community. (16)
Peat is a sink alongside permafrost, oceans, vacant lots, and our bodies. There is a loudening call to better safeguard peatlands and include them in Earth System Models because of their capacity to sink carbon, offsetting what we (predominantly Western countries) have released. Such soundbites as, "If all the carbon in the world’s peatlands were to suddenly vaporize, roughly 550 to 650 billion tons of carbon dioxide would pour back into the atmosphere—about twice the volume that’s been added since the start of the Industrial Revolution," (f) have been proliferating in the media.
In addition to carbon, peat takes into it heavy metals, which are present in greater quantity as a result of extractive activity that released and deposited it, particularly during the last half-century. This deposition is legible in peat profiles, which contain an archive of changes, evidencing environments in flux. Pollen, plant waxes, and isotopes are studied to mark strata. When peatlands leak through fire or erosion, the peat cannot be read as an archive in the same way any longer; the archive becomes an "unstable repository" (g) owing to the fact that the metals and carbon are not fully encased in it. Molecules are released by fire into our "turbulent medium" of atmosphere (h) and wear down and wash out to sea.
With climate change driving fire and melting at a global scale, there is a demand for new archives—both to be able to sequester carbon for mitigating climate change and also to be able to continually situate homo sapiens stratigraphically. Part of sequestering carbon, or balancing the carbon budget, is the location of ‘clandestine’ carbon reserves. The Atlantic Coastal Plain is known as a "hot spot" for soil carbon storage for its very deep organic carbon-rich subsoil, and a billion tons were until recently unaccounted for due to an underestimation of the impact of soil carbon on the part of Earth Sciences. (i) Scientist Claire Treat says peat burial "is basically like a leak in what we usually consider a closed system of how carbon moves around the earth, from the atmosphere to the land and oceans." (j)
The trouble with managing carbon stores and releases to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gases is the underlying logic of calculation, which minimizes complexity in favor of fixing the planet as an object of analysis. Scholar and investigator Jennifer Gabrys contends, "What is missing in sinks is not just the supposed locations of carbon storage, but also the complex and transformative dynamics of the natural-cultural constitution of sinks". (k) In the article "Becoming Planetary," Gabrys wonders what stabilizing the earth would necessitate such that human civilization, in all its destructiveness, is sustained, and questions: "What other planet-human configurations might be proposed such that human 'civilization' is not a project of stabilizing the planet, but rather of re-imagining the human and the planetary as praxis?" (l)
Whether leakage is considered to be the absence or slowing of elemental cycling (as Claire Treat is quoted above) or to be its acceleration, environmental and climate justice will not be achieved through implementing an accounting approach to reach a state of balance. Alternately, I take up a question Gabrys posed to me in 2020: "What does it mean to engage with environments and materialities that could spark effects and events that don’t perform as we expect them to?" Answering this question instead of questions as to the locations and amounts of carbon marks an epistemological shift toward nuanced interactions and reemergences. Peatland was held to be wasteland, then a land of ecosystem services. It must be allowed to be processual.