The University of Leeds is leading a major investigation into how climate change can be mitigated through better management of the UK's peat bogs.
Working with colleagues from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Open University the researchers will look at how blanket peatlands can be restored in a way that minimises greenhouse gas emissions.
Northern-hemisphere peatlands, such as the blanket peatlands of north Wales and the north Pennines, contain three times as much carbon as the Amazon rainforest. But years of over-drainage has caused peat to dry out and decompose, releasing carbon in the form of CO2 into the atmosphere where it can contribute to global warming.
Restoring damaged peatland by blocking man-made drainage channels (known as grips) has been proposed as a way of reversing this trend making peat bogs become a net ,'carbon sink', where more CO2 is taken up by plant photosynthesis than is released through decay.
Lead researcher Professor Andy Baird, from the University of Leeds, said: "If managed correctly, peatlands have the potential to play an important part in the fight against climate change. However, the effect of such restoration measures on future climate is not fully understood.
"There is evidence to suggest that restoring peatlands by blocking man-made drainage channels will cause them to release methane - a greenhouse gas 20-times more potent than CO2.
"Until now, methane has been ignored when estimating the benefits of peatland, but because it is so potent, it has the potential to contribute more to global warming than CO2. If this is the case there is a chance that peatland restoration could do more harm than good in terms of contributing to climate change.
"If robust policy and guidelines on peatland management are to be developed, there is an urgent need for better understanding of how restoration practices affect the carbon balance and global warming potential of peat bogs."
This £1.1M, five-year study, funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), will result in evidence that can be utilised in the development of practical advice on how to block grips in such a way that methane emissions are minimised.
The researchers will conduct experiments in the laboratory and will also study different restoration practices already in place in north Wales. The project is part of water@leeds - an interdisciplinary research group of 150 water research experts based at the University.
water@leeds director Professor Joseph Holden added: "These peatlands provide important services to our society and it is vitally important we have science supporting our management practices. This project will enable us to scientifically test such practices and make a real impact on how public funds are spent to best manage the environment for maximum benefits."
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Notes to editors
The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The university is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The university's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015.
water@leeds was created to bring together people working in diverse fields of water research, from biology and chemistry to engineering, geography and the physical sciences. As a cross-faculty centre, water@leeds can call upon the expertise of over 150 personnel involved in or associated with water research. It is the largest university-based water research centre in the UK. Website