Game-Changing Satellite Map Identifies Peatland Areas where Restoration has the Greatest Carbon Impact
Areas of the highest carbon potential (in red) across the UK and the Republic of Ireland. This is derived from an analysis of satellite data from the period 2016-2021. Potential carbon savings and their market value per annum are estimated for the devolved UK administrations.
Peatland organizations and experts from across the globe have joined together to pledge their collective commitment to tackling climate change, protecting nature and forging ahead for the health of our planet. The Global Peat Press Project (GP3) supported by the United Nations Environment Programme’s Global Peatland Initiative (GPI) and the North Pennines AONB is a press and social media collaboration to share experiences and celebrate the successes of ongoing work that unites international peatland partners.
Around 12% of land in the UK is cover by peatlands – nearly three million hectares. Peatlands are a natural store of carbon but centuries of exploitation, particularly draining the peat to plant forests or grow crops, have led to damage and degradation, meaning that they are now a net source of UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
In healthy peatlands, the surface responds seasonally to changes in water and gas volumes by rising and falling, a phenomenon known as “bog breathing”. When averaged over time, the surface motion of a healthy peatlands shows net uplift, as a result of mass gain. In contrast, the surface a degraded peatland shows a net collapse, indicative of loss of mass and therefore carbon. Terra Motion Limited, a spin-out company from the University of Nottingham, have developed a novel technique that uses satellite radar data to measure this motion to millimetric accuracy for peatlands at local, regional and national scale. Ongoing research led by the University of Nottingham and the Thurso-based Environmental Research Institute (University of the Highlands and Islands) funded by NatureScot recently showed the huge potential of their APSIS™ land motion product for the monitoring of peatland condition.
In the run-up to COP26, Terra Motion have surveyed the surface motion of all peatland areas across the UK and the Republic of Ireland using their APSIS™ technology to develop another product. Rather than condition categories, the map shows the average surface motion of peatland areas over a five-year period (2016-21) and was put together through an advanced analysis of thousands of satellite radar images gathered by the Sentinel-1 satellite. The map is particularly suited to highlighting areas with the rapid rates of collapse generally associated with actively eroding peatlands, which have the highest emissions but also the greatest potential for carbon offsetting in support of national commitments to reduce emissions and to achieve net zero.
A detail from the map indicating areas of the highest carbon potential (in red) derived from the peat motion map covering the period 2016-21. Potential carbon savings and their market value per annum are indicated for the different areas highlighted.
Andrew Sowter Director at Terra Motion said, “This is the first time that such an extensive survey has been performed across these islands and it shows that significant areas of peatlands are collapsing across the country, a likely sign of extensive damage. From the 2.2 million hectares of the UK surveyed, some 19% have collapsed by more than 2.5cm over five years. Assuming that this collapse is an indication of active erosion or oxidation, we estimate that, as a whole, the UK peatlands surveyed were emitting around 10 million tonnes of carbon (CO2 equivalent) per year during 2016-21.”
Restoration of these peatlands would help the UK to meet its ambitious targets to reduce its emissions by 78% by 2035, but funding restoration projects is an expensive business. Substantial grants have been set aside for this purpose by the devolved nations and the central government. However, it is clear that targets will not be met without the considerable support of private investment, including through possible investments in carbon markets. This is recognised globally and a central mechanism under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, a key topic for COP26.
Using the emission figures from the Terra Motion survey and an approximate current commercial value of carbon of around £50 per tonne CO2e, we estimate that the economic potential of UK peatland restoration could be worth over £500 million per year. Using an estimate of £1,000 per hectare for total restoration costs, we conclude that with an appropriate carbon offsetting scheme, any actual costs of a restoration project could be recovered in the first year of operation, making investing in peatlands restoration a highly lucrative proposition. Furthermore, peatland restoration is a nature-based solution which brings with it other co-benefits such as improved biodiversity and water quality, as well as the promise of increasing job opportunities in rural areas, which also have significant economic benefits to landowners and local communities.
Dianna Kopansky Programme Management Officer and Global Peatlands Initiative Coordinator at UNEP, said: “Linking up to raise awareness of the potential of healthy peatlands for climate action, nature protection and our overall well-being is vital. The cutting edge work carried out by Terra Motion clearly shows that UK peatlands are rapidly degrading and that their restoration makes economic and climate sense. Sharing and learning from novel techniques from GPI partners like Terra Motion shows that together we can highlight the importance and opportunity of peatlands restoration to help us address the climate and nature emergency”.
How the Map was Generated
The map was generated from the analysis of five years’ worth of radar images from the European Sentinel-1 satellite which is a cheap and readily available source of data. Thousands of images were processed using Terra Motion’s in-house and Patent-Pending APSIS™ technology, uniquely able to work over vegetated and natural surfaces, to generate land motion measurements across the country. A methodology for the assessment of peatland condition using APSIS™ data has been thoroughly demonstrated by studies led by the University of Nottingham and the Environmental Research Institute, Thurso and has been peer-reviewed and published in the following report and associated paper:
We considered only peatland areas classified as such by the CORINE Land Cover map for the survey, a total of 3,251,918 hectares across the UK and the Irish Republic. CORINE is not a soil map and therefore peat soils with vegetation cover such as grassland or coniferous forest are not classified as peat.
How Emissions were Calculated
We first identified areas of the greatest subsidence to be those most likely to be the most actively draining or oxidising, a total of 430,273 hectares (19% of the total surveyed area) across the UK. Note that this may not pick up some areas of dense upland peat that may be relatively stable and yet still slowly subsiding/oxidising. For the estimation of emissions, we then applied the emissions values relating to Actively Eroding classes from the Peatland Carbon Code.
To add an economic value to the peat, we used a value of £50 (€58) per tonne CO2e.
Dr Andy Sowter, Terra Motion Limited, Nottingham UK.
Tel: +44 (0)1156 712 180
Notes to Editors
Terra Motion Limited is a spin-out company from the University of Nottingham. It was incorporated in 2015 after the team won the prestigious Copernicus Masters Prize (also known as the ‘Space Oscars’) in 2014 and was named as one of the ‘Star Companies of the UK Space Sector’ by Business Leader magazine in 2019. Terra Motion provide land motion surveys for environmental safety and security to a number of commercial sectors using Patent-Pending APSIS™ technology, exclusively licensed by the University of Nottingham. The technology is based upon the Big Data processing of satellite radar data.
A relay of stories from peatland projects worldwide started with the UK as the host of the upcoming UNFCCC climate change conference (COP26) taking place in Glasgow this November. The relay has already featured the North Pennines AONB, the Care-Peat project in Belgium, NUI Galway, five EU transnational projects (Carbon Connects, Care-Peat, DESIRE, LIFE Peat Restore, and CANAPE), Bax & Company who straddle the UK, Spain and The Netherlands, The Lancashire Wildlife Trust, GPI & EUROSITE Peatlands Social Media Campaign, NABU with the LIFE Peat Restore Project, Moors for the Future Partnership, Metsähallitus and the Hydrology LIFE Project, and finally the Welsh Raised Bogs Project.
Join us - share, learn, inspire, experience and act for peatlands, people and the planet. Follow and share using #PeatlandsMatter and #GenerationRestoration.