How Extreme Weather Contributes to Greenhouse Gas Emissions

While experts debate whether extreme weather conditions such as this summer’s record rainfall can be explained by climate change, University of Leicester geographers are investigating whether the opposite is true – does extreme weather impact on climate change?

To answer the question, a team of researchers from the Department of Geography and Centre for Landscape and Climate Research at the University of Leicester set up a new monitoring station in June to measure greenhouse gas emissions from drained and cultivated peatlands in the East Anglian Fens. They will make measurements over an extended period in order to record carbon emissions over a wide spectrum of weather conditions.
Their study, supported by the Natural Environment Research Council, will provide the first ever direct measurements of carbon dioxide emissions from degraded peat soils in the intensively farmed English Fens, which are widely recognised as the largest land use related source of this greenhouse gas in the UK.
Professor Heiko Balzter, Director of the Centre for Landscape and Climate Research and Professor of Physical Geography, said: “Preserving greenhouse gases that are stored in peat soils is being recognised more and more as a way to fight climate change. Extreme weather can change the amount of greenhouse gases being released from peat soils. At the same time, these emissions influence future climate itself. We have a feedback loop here, where cause and effect influence each other. Land managers and politicians are looking for solutions to the climate problem. We hope to be able to contribute to finding them.”
Ross Morrison, of the Department of Geography and Centre for Landscape and Climate Research, added: “It is really important to get a handle on the scale of CO2 emissions from degrading peatlands in this region. The peat soils in the Fens are this region’s most valuable resource, but are under threat from both land use pressures and projected changes in climate.
“Like the rest of the UK, there have been some unusual and extreme weather conditions in the Fens over recent years, first with the drought and now some of the wettest summer conditions in decades. These conditions will have implications for the scale of CO2 losses from these peatlands. This research will allow us to better account for CO2 emissions under a wide range of weather conditions, and help us to identify the best methods of managing these globally important soils, as well as options for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
“As a young researcher, it is also very exciting to be working on something this important that has never been measured before.”
The results of the project will inform national reports on emissions. The findings will improve the way in which carbon emissions are reported to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international treaty established to avoid dangerous climate change. The study comes at an important time as the UK prepares for the second carbon budgeting period under the UK Climate Change Act of 2008.
Professor Susan Page, Head of the Department of Geography and a leading peatland scientist, commented: “In order to make decisions on the management of the UK’s lowland peatlands we need improved knowledge of their role in influencing global climate as well as their importance to the local and national economy.  This project will deliver, for the first time, data on the greenhouse gas emissions from fen peatlands under a range of different land uses. This will enable decision makers and consumers to participate in rational discussions on how these areas should be managed, both now and for future generations.”
The research uses tower-based micrometeorological techniques to study greenhouse gas emissions. Initial findings of the research will be published following the first complete crop rotation and will be of direct relevance to farmers in the Fenland region as they will provide improved guidance for wise use of cultivated peatlands. The outcomes of the research will provide important information to retailers and consumers concerned with the carbon cost of cereals and vegetables produced on peat soils.
Dr Jörg Kaduk, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geography and Centre for Landscape and Climate Research, commented: “We have really only a quite poor understanding how different weather conditions and management regimes influence greenhouse gas emissions from UK Fenlands. While agricultural Fens are significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions they are also the prime UK agricultural land and we depend on their produce. We will hopefully identify more sustainable ways to use this land productively, now and in a future changed climate.”
The project is part of a wider collaboration between the University of Leicester, the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and a team of other Universities. It assesses carbon, water and energy fluxes from natural, cultivated and restored peatlands in the Fens. The researchers will compare carbon emissions across this land use gradient. They hope to find more environmentally friendly and cost effective land management practices.

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