My first taste of peatland research came in the final year of my undergraduate degree at Exeter. I knew I was interested in the concept of past environmental change but was struggling to decide on a dissertation project. Luckily, my tutor at the time, Dr Ralph Fyfe, was working on a project investigating how Neolithic and Bronze Age Britons had interacted with the landscape on nearby Dartmoor several thousands of years ago.
After a number months spent staring down a microscope at microscopic pollen grains and fungal spores preserved in the constantly accumulating layers of peat, we were able to reconstruct how, through human modification, the landscape had changed through time. The project findings were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science and I was hooked!
I then packed off to London for an intense year, studying for a master’s degree in Quaternary science at Royal Holloway and UCL. Here, I learnt a great deal about the reconstruction of past environments using a range of different techniques, but in the end, peatlands called me home! I began my PhD in Exeter in 2008, investigating how abrupt climatic events are represented in the peatland record of Britain and Ireland.
The experience I had gained during my undergraduate project was mainly in the field of ‘environmental archaeology’, which explores long-term interactions between humans and the landscape they live in. My PhD research, however, incorporated a number of techniques for reconstructing past changes in bog hydrology. As the types of bog I was looking at received all their moisture in the form of precipitation, this past variation could be interpreted as indicators of changes in the wider regional climate changes.
I often get asked, ‘so, why bogs?!’. For me, peatlands are fascinating for two reasons: their versatility, and their relevance. The vast majority of peatlands began to form at some point during the Holocene, the relatively warm period that began c. 11,500 years ago after the glaciers and ice caps of the ice age began to melt away and are therefore capable of reconstructing a environmental and climatic context for the development of human civilisation, using a whole host of different chemical, biological and dating techniques.
Peatlands are intensely important for the future of our planet. Whilst covering just 3% of the earth’s land surface, they contain approximately one third of the world’s terrestrial soil carbon – more than any other land-based ecosystem, relatively speaking. As a result, these systems play a pivotal role in the global carbon cycle. Understanding how peatland systems work, how they can be best preserved and how we can restore them after years of damage and exploitation is vital not only for maintaining biodiversity and the environment, but also for managing the amount of CO2 released and captured from our atmosphere. So, there we go – that’s why I study bogs!
Having worked on Patagonian peatlands with Paul Hughes for two years, I’m now working on peatlands of a slightly unusual nature. For starter’s they’re on the Antarctic Peninsula – perhaps not quite where you’d expect to find moss thriving? This project is based in Exeter, but I remain a visiting researcher in the PLUS research group.
Matt Amesbury (another PLUS alumni!) and I had the idea to set up Bogology in 2012. It’s a website that aims to provide a introduction to peatlands and the science of past climate change. We’re both pretty keen on communicating what we do and why we do it to a wider audience, not just because we might need to remind ourselves sometimes after 8 hours straight of microscope work, but also because it’s genuinely interesting stuff – we hope you agree!