Peat: Not a “darling”

Question: What is peat? Is it soil? Why does it form in some places and not others?

The word “peat” in the 1500s was used to describe a “merry young girl” or a “darling.” This is NOT the peat that we find in soils and wetlands…and odds are you won’t find a darling in these places either.

drying-blocks-peat

Drying blocks of peat in Drenthe, The Netherlands. The dried peat is used to fuel stoves. Photo: Tom Jutte (www.flickr.com)

Today peat refers to the partially decomposed organic material found in swamps, bogs, and marshes. The main condition for peat formation is a lack of oxygen, so that organic matter—plant parts and mosses—doesn’t completely decompose. Oxygen is lacking because the soils of swamps, bogs, and marshes are saturated with water. Over time, peat accumulates as the input of dead plant material exceeds its decomposition.

Peat is not itself considered soil. However, organic soils known as Histosols can be made up of peat; in other words, peat can be a major component of an organic soil. These soils can be very productive farmland, but draining them of water may also cause them to subside. Because of its rich store of organic material, peat is also often cut up and used for energy or as a soil amendment.

Peat covers as much as 2% of the world’s land mass. While it’s most often found in cold, northern climates, it can be found throughout the world. Protecting the world’s peat is important because it’s a long-term “sink”—or storage site—of carbon taken from the atmosphere, as well as a habitat for the continued formation of peat.

There another reason it’s important. Take peat, add pressure and lots of time, and what do you get? Coal.

 –Answered by Nick Comerford, University of Florida

 Have a question for Soils Matter? Post it as a comment below, or email us at soils-matter@soils.org

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