God created the world but peat created Amsterdam
What’s all this about the Netherland’s being ‘reclaimed from the sea’? It is actually a myth that the country emerged victoriously out of salty sea water. Cycling down Amstelveenseweg, you’re not 20 feet below sea level because ‘the humans removed the sea’, you’re under sea level because the water was extracted from the sponge-like peat ecosystem that was once there, and that meant that the ground level lowered.
For those who don’t know what peat is - a quick summary: peat is formed in water-logged soils. As surrounding plants die, they sink into the water and change its chemistry, making the water acidic and low in oxygen. As a result, the following plants to fall into the water do not fully decompose, but instead form delicate semi-decomposed plant layers over many many years. Once these layers reach a certain thickness the land officially becomes a fen, a type of peatland (think veen, as in Amstelveen!)
You might be thinking ‘yeah yeah, I know how a polder works’, but did you know that despite peatlands only taking up 3% of the Earth’s surface, compared with 30% of forests, they hold twice the amount of carbon as forests? Remember that not-quite-dead plant matter? Well that is pure carbon. Yet, when you drain peatlands, this organic matter starts to decompose, so where you once had an extremely efficient carbon store, you now have a potent carbon emitter. Right now the total global (CO2) emissions from drained peatlands are more than twice that of the aviation industry! Feel free to write this on a placard at the next climate march!
And yet the importance of peatlands goes far beyond their immense carbon storage. As you delve in further, you realise that like ogres, onions and Rachel Green’s iconic haircut, peatlands join the league of fantastic things that come in layers. The physical layers of peat are overlapping, and textured, and weave together thousands of years of human and planetary history. Scientists, artists, historians, farmers and mythical creatures find their home in the layers. Thick slabs of peat record vestiges of human interaction; sometimes in our objects and sometimes in literal sacrifice. Ancient pollen left in the peat layers can reveal secrets of past climates and events. There are layers of words, found in myth and poetry; words of warning uttered in fear, as well as fond words dedicated to the place that sits between worlds.
So, next time you pick up an Amsterdam Alternative, don’t picture a city emerging from the sea, think about a city floating on stilts on a peatland.
On the 31st of May RE-PEAT is hosting planet earth’s first 24-hour Online Global Peat-Fest.
They welcome you to wade into the multi-dimensional, multi-layered depths of one of Earth’s most unsung ecosystems: the humble yet profound peatland. https://re-peat.mn.co/feed