An Taisce applauds winners of BT Young Scientist Award

15th January 2016
Press Release

Congratulations to Sarah Denby, Louise Egan and Fiona Molloy on coming first place in the Biological and Ecological (intermediate group) section of this year’s BT Young Scientist Awards.

An Taisce applauds the girls from Athlone Community College for their exemplary research on 'Rewetted and degraded bogs: Carbon emissions and botanical composition’; and their teacher Leo Smith for supporting them to do this topical research. In addition to winning first place in its group, the project was the recipient of the Environmental Protection Agency Special Award.

To help understand the background for the project, here are some of the Basics of Bogs:

  • Ordinarily, plants release CO₂ into the atmosphere during respiration and take in CO₂ for photosynthesis. Photosynthesis turns this Carbon into new plant material. In a healthy undrained bog, when plants die, the plant material (Carbon) is unable to fully decompose in the anaerobic environment created by the high water table. The Carbon is then stored as new peat - a form of carbon sequestration. Since healthy bogs take in and store more CO₂ than they emit, they act as Carbon Sinks.

  • Disastrously, drainage for the purposes of peat extraction, agriculture and commercial forestry is taking a huge toll on the health of our bogs. The BOGLAND Research Project, 2011, found that less than 1% of our raised bogs can actively store carbon. Draining bogs lowers the water table and exposes the peat to the air. This allows the stored carbon to be oxidised to CO₂ and released to the atmosphere. In this way our natural carbon sinks have become a carbon source, because they are emitting more CO₂ than their plants can take in. Renou-Wilson* et al *(2011) estimated that Irish peatlands emit ~2.64 million tonnes of carbon per year as a result of irresponsible mistreatment.

However, there is hope! The purpose of the Young Scientist project by Ms. Denby, Ms. Egan and Ms. Molloy was to ‘explore whether rewetting drained bogs is a suitable method of reducing carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from drained Irish raised bogs and ensuring rare plant species survive.’ The study was conducted predominantly on Moyarwood Bog, county Galway; a raised bog which had previously been drained by Bord na Móna but not extracted. In 2012 peat dams had been installed in part of the site which meant that some of the bog became rewetted, while another area remained drained. Thus comparison of CO₂ emissions and botanical composition could be carried out between the two areas.

The girls concluded that the lower water table created by draining did result in increased CO₂ emission. Their results confirmed that during the growing season the drained area of the bog acted as a carbon source and that the rewetted bog acted as a large carbon sink. Another critical result was that increased soil temperature had a significant impact on the emissions of CO₂; higher peat temperatures were correlated with increased CO₂ emissions. This is an important factor to bear in mind given projected temperature increase we will encounter as a result of climate change. Botanical composition was also found to be markedly different at the two sites; the drained area being biodiversity-poor with non-native (for bogs) heather and the rewetted site having abundant sphagnum mosses, ‘the building blocks of peat’.

They project that during the winter, the storage of carbon by the rewetted area sink would be less as less CO₂ would be taken in for photosynthesis but that the drained area would be an even greater carbon source as it would have extremely low levels of photosynthesis given the absence of sphagnum mosses.

The Young Scientists are not coy with the scale of the issue; they assert that “it has taken 10,000 years for bogs to develop but it’s only taken us two hundred years to destroy a large percentage of them.” Neither are they reluctant to spell out what we can do with this understanding - they reference the recent Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Act, an objective of which is to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, and suggest rewetting the bogs as being one doubly effective step; firstly in preventing ongoing emissions from peat and secondly by allowing them, over time, to become carbon sinks again.

Alannah Ní Cheallaigh-Mhuirí, the Climate and Energy intern for an Taisce and member of An Taisce’s Climate Committee visited the Athlone Community College stand at the event and stated that she was “hugely impressed by the quality of the research and the clarity of the girls’ presentation and message. They are inspiring examples of Ireland’s young scientists taking on the challenge of the day by finding ways for their local area to reduce Carbon emissions.”

An Taisce feel that it is important not just to give a pat on the back, but to recognise the knowledge gained from such a study, by airing their findings and seeking to have them implemented on the ground.

ENDS

Reference: Renou-Wilson F., Bolger T., Bullock C., Convery F., Curry J. P., Ward S., Wilson D. & Müller C. 2011. BOGLAND - Sustainable Management of Peatlands in Ireland. STRIVE Report No 75 prepared for the Environmental Protection Agency, Johnstown Castle, Co. Wexford. (Access: http://www.ucd.ie/bogland/publications/STRIVE_75_Renou_Bogland_prn_web%20(1).pdf)

For further information, please call:
Charles Stanley-Smith, Communications, An Taisce. Tel: +353 87 241 1995
email: publicaffairs@antaisce.org
An Taisce The National Trust for Ireland
www.antaisce.org