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Slides with information about loss of organic matter in peat soils


OMPeat FrontCover

RECARE Fact sheet on loss of organic matter in peat soils


WP2 Reportcover

RECARE Soil Threat Review report providing detailed information

What is it?

A decline of soil organic matter in peats soil across Europe is mainly due to mineralisation (biochemical decomposition). Drainage to reclaim peatlands results in subsidence and decomposition of the peat. Peatlands are one of the major stocks of carbon (C) in the world and the loss of organic matter in peat soils, turn them into a major source of CO2 and N2O.

Dairy peatland Netherlands   Arable peatland Sweden300x200   Forestry on peatland Finland300x200
 Drained peatland for dairy farming in the Netherlands. (Photo: J.J.H van den Akker)    Drained agricultural peatland (carrots) in Sweden. (Photo: Kerstin Berglund)    Forestry on drained peatland in Finland. (Photo: Björn Klöve)

Where does it occur?

Peat cover mapIt is estimated that the EU (27) had in 2008 about 229 000 km2 peat soils with a conservative estimated C stock of 18 700 Mton of C. CO2 emission of drained peat soils of the EU (27) is estimated at 173 Mton CO2 per year, which means that the European Union is, after Indonesia and before the Russian Federation, the world’s second largest peatland emission hotspot.

More than 50% of this peat area is in just a few northern European countries (Norway, Finland, Sweden, United Kingdom) and the remainder mainly in Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and the Baltic states. Of this area, approximately 50% has already been drained, while most of the undrained areas are in Finland and Sweden. It is estimated that the decline of organic matter (OM) in drained agricultural peat soils due to mineralisation is about 10-20 tonnes OM per hectare per year.


 Relative cover (%) of peat and peat-topped (0 – 30 cm) soils in the SMUs of the European Soil Database3  


What causes it?

Human activities
A major reason for the decline in organic matter in peat is reclamation and drainage of peat soils for forestry and agricultural land and feed and food production. Fen peat soils are particularly suited for agricultural use and practices, such asthe drainage, cultivation, liming and fertilizer use, has causesd rapid mineralisation of organic matter.

Climatic factors
It is predicted that climate change will have a major impact on peat soil degradation and increase CO2 emissions, partly due to the increase of decomposition rate by the temperature rise, and mainly by the more often occurrence of long periods with extreme drought. Climatic conditions in natural peatland areas can gradually change from favourable for peat growth into peat degrading conditions.

How can it be measured or assessed?

 Soil threat   Soil threat indicators
Decline in OM

in peat soils

  •  peat stocks and peat stocks reduction (Mt)
Proxy indicators
  • water table (m)
  • soil moisture content (%)
  • (soil) temperature (°C)
  • vegetation type (species)


 The table below lists key indicators, purpose of the indicator, methods and corresponding references for measuring peat stocks.

Indicators Purpose Methods
peat stocks and peat stocks reduction      measure amount of C in peat soils  PS = PA *PD * 10-4 * Db where PStock is peat stock in Mt; PArea is peat area in km2;  PDepth is peat depth in m; Db is bulk density in t m-3 (t m-3)
- measure subsidence Peat stock reduction can be calculated from the subsidence over a period.  The annual loss of OM per hectare per mm subsidence is about 1000 – 1100 kg. This equals a CO2 emission of about 600 kg CO2-C.
- measure/estimate direct CO2 emissions  closed gas chamber
micro-meteorological measurements using eddy-covariance
- identify vegetation type mapping of vegetation types characterized by the presence and absence of species groups indicative for specific water level classes and GHG emissions.2
- estimate loss of OM and GHG emissions  simulate peat land emissions of CO2, CH4 and N2O, soil subsidence and nutrient loading of surface waters with models.3

How can it be prevented or remediated?

Much of the decline in organic matter caused by peatland drainage can be reversed by raising water tables to the land surface, a process known as rewetting. This will exclude agricultural use and to a large extent also forestry. There is no universal strategy for rewetting a drained peatland, however, malpractices can result in a boost of GHG emissions and severe pollution of surface waters. Other major constraints are the costs and the lack of water now or in the future due to climate change. Specifically rewetting of agricultural peat soils can be very costly and de facto impossible due to socio-economic and cultural, historic reasons. There can be various causes for the drained conditions, and the rewetting options vary widely depending on climate, water availability and topography. 

Decreasing water losses from the peatland Increasing water supply to the peatland Enlarging water storage in the peatland
damming or infilling of drainage canals and ditches decreasing groundwater extraction and/or increasing groundwater recharge in he catchment area installing bunds (elongated dams) to
increase water storage over the peat surface
raising overflow heights of weirs and sluices diverting water into the site creating paddy fieldlike cascades to rewet sloping peatlands

raising groundwater level

irrigating by pumping into the site maintaining or creating hollows (e.g. dammed canals) to ncrease depression storage
establishing and allowing obstructions in water courses (e.g trees, rocks)

perforating stagnating surface peat soil horizons to restore discharge of groundwater  
removing subsurface drainage pipes by excavation or destruction    
reducing evapotranspiration from tree growth in the peatland    
establishing hydrological buffer zones with higher water levels    


An alternative experimental measure is cropping and afforesting on wet and rewetted peatlands with crops adapted to the wet soil conditions, known as Paludiculture, which can may maintain and add organic matter to peatlands.

PeatLandscapeNetherlands BerkenwoudeDrains
Conservation of peat soils in use as grassland by raising groundwater levels by infiltration via submerged drains, one of the case studies in RECARE (Photos: J.J.H van den Akker)

How does it interact with other soil threats?

OMloss peat interact soilthreatsNatural peat soils are hotspots of biodiversity. As the source of energy underpinning food-webs, a A decline in OM may lead to reduced biodiversity. Natural peat lands and even not completely degraded peat lands store water and act as a sponge. They absorb and retain water during periods with a surplus of precipitation and slowly release water in times of water deficit. In this way, peat lands slow down peak discharge and reduce incidences of flooding and prevent water erosion. Degraded peat soils in arable agriculture or in overgrazed grassland are vulnerable to water and wind erosion. Water erosion is especially a problem in overgrazed blanket peats. Wind erosion is a serious problem on peat soils in arable agriculture.






How does it affect soil functions?

  • Biomass production - Oxidation of peat soils results not only in emissions of CO2, but also in mineralization of N, which makes the degradation of peat soils an important supply of nutrients and therefore can increases food and biomass production considerably. However, on-going oxidation and loss of peat results in time in the total loss of the peat layer. The level of biomass production then depends on the fertility and soil physical properties of the soil underneath the original peat layer, many of which are acid.
  • Storage/filtering/transforming - Peat soils have a high storage, filtering, buffering and transformation capacity. Loss of peat results in loss of these capacities, especially the storage of C.
  • Gene pool (biodiversity) Drainage of natural peat soils results in a significant change in biodiversity and more so in peatland meadows than peat soils in arable agriculture.
  • Cultural heritage - Peat soils are by nature historical archives and can store artefacts of ancient cultures and human bodies. Drainage and oxidation of peat results in a total loss of this historical archive. On the other hand in e.g. the Netherlands the historic drained peat meadow landscape is also considered part of the cultural heritage.


1 Montanarella, L., Jones, R.J.A. and Hiederer, R., 2006. The distribution of peat land in Europe. Mires and Peat, 1, 1-10.
2 Couwenberg, J., J. Augustin, D. Michaelis and H. Joosten, 2008. Emission reductions from rewetting of peat lands - Towards a field guide for the assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from Central European peat lands. Duene /Greifswald University, Report RSPB, Bedfordshire, 28 pp
3 Hendriks, R.F.A., Wolleswinkel, R.J. and Van den Akker, J.J.H., 2008. Predicting greenhouse gas emission in peat soil depending on water management with the SWAP-ANIMO model. Proceedings 13th International Peat Congress, Tullamore, Ireland, International Peat Society.

The presentation below provides information about the problems of soil organic matter loss and potential prevention measures in peat soils.