At 3.7 million square kilometers, the Congo Basin contains some of the planet’s largest tropical rainforests and vast wetlands. Buried within this awesome wilderness are the Cuvette Centrale peatlands, recently discovered and mapped swamps that may contain 30 billion tons of carbon. This makes the Cuvette Centrale one of Earth’s most carbon rich ecosystems, one that desperately needs protection to avoid the release of the equivalent to 20 years of carbon emissions from the United States.

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The Cuvette Centrale peatlands were first discovered five years ago by a UK-Congolese research team, whose research, based on three year’s worth of peat analysis and satellite data, was published in Nature on Wednesday. “These peatlands hold nearly 30% of the world’s tropical peatland carbon,” said research co-leader Professor Simon Lewis of the University of Leeds. “Our research shows that the peat in the central Congo basin covers a colossal amount of land. It is 16 times larger than the previous estimate and is the single largest peatland complex found anywhere in the tropics.” More commonly found in cooler climates, such as Scotland where it is used to flavor scotch, peat is formed from soaked, partially decomposed plant materials. In order for carbon to be stored, peat must not dry out. If it does, due to climate change or land disturbance, decomposition of the material will continue and carbon will be released into the atmosphere.

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Only recently discovered, the Cuvette Centrale peatlands have not yet been disturbed. However, their protection is of the utmost importance in reducing the impact of climate change. “The maintenance and protection of this peatland complex, alongside protecting our forests, could be central Africa’s great contribution to the global climate change problem,” said Dr. Ifo Suspense, study co-author and researcher at Université Marien Ngouabi in Brazzaville. In addition to its value as a carbon sink, the Congo Basin is also of enormous ecological value as it is home to gorillas, elephants, okapi and other large mammals threatened by deforestation. The Republic of Congo is considering an expansion of its Lac Télé community reserve to protect an additional 50,000 square kilometers of swamp forest, much of which is peatlands. As governments and scientists move to protect the peatlands and the planet, one cannot help but be awestruck. “It is astonishing that in 2016 discoveries like this can still be made,” said study co-leader Dr. Greta Dargie of University College London.

Via the Guardian

Images via David Holt and Flickr