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Sudbury research project aims to restore damaged peatlands, boost climate change fight

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A three-year, $1.5 million federally funded research project is underway in Sudbury aimed at restoring damaged peatlands to aid in the fight against climate change.

Dr. Pete Whittington, a professor at Brandon University and the project’s co-investigator, said peatlands are incredibly effective at absorbing and storing carbon.

“The principal investigator on the project, Colin McCarter, had just accepted a Canada Research chair position at Nipissing University,” Whittington said.

“As part of the federal government's … fight against climate change, they put out a call for funding for anthropogenic greenhouse gas sequestration and … peatlands are really good at sequestering carbon.”

Peatlands in the Sudbury area have been damaged by years of atmospheric contamination, largely because of the effects of mining.

In particular, sphagnum moss, an essential carbon absorber in peatlands, is dead. The group’s research aims to develop a restoration technique to restore the moss and greatly increase the amount of carbon local peatlands can absorb.

“We've got about 6,000 hectares of peatlands” (in Sudbury), Whittington said.

If those peatlands were healthy, he said they could absorb the same amount of carbon in two years that all of the re-greened forests in the area have in the last 50 years.

“That's not to say the re-greening hasn't been important,” Whittington said.

Healthy peatlands could absorb the same amount of carbon in two years that all of the re-greened forests in the Sudbury area have in the last 50 years. (Photo from video)

“I don't think we could have healthy lowlands without having healthy uplands, but it's just another component in the ecosystem scale restoration.”

The research will take place on less than a hectare of the Laurentian University greenspace, as well as in a greenhouse at Nipissing University.

The restoration approach is based on a moss layer transfer technique that was developed at Laval University in Quebec. The process includes spreading donor moss materials on the extracted peatland’s surface and covering it with straw mulch to ensure the moss doesn’t dry out.

Prof. Peter Beckett, who’s been a driving force for years when it comes to Greater Sudbury’s re-greening efforts, said the peatlands research complements what’s already been done.

Major benefits locally

While it’s hard work, Beckett said the research could have major benefits locally and for climate change efforts everywhere.

The research will allow them “to gain new data and especially to see how the peatlands are working and (are) going to work,” he said.

“But more than that, it gives the students an opportunity to carry out some research work that's going to be beneficial to people in the future.”

If successful, he said it could be a major boost to Sudbury’s efforts to become carbon neutral by 2025.

“If we can get the peatlands to be a carbon sink, to take up carbon from the atmosphere, then it will help,” Beckett said.

Students will be monitoring the restoration and researchers say they expect to see results in two to three years at which time they hope to apply for a five-year grant that will allow them to figure out how the restoration can be done on a larger scale.

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