Ecocentricity Blog: What If I Told You

By: John A. Lanier
Jun 30, 2021 9:30 AM ET
Summary: 

What if I told you…that something with only 3% of the size can do 33% of the work? This is the story of peatlands.

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Back in 2009, ESPN launched a sports documentary series called 30 for 30. It was the company’s 30th anniversary, and the series would include 30 different hour-long films. Some of the original episodes included the story of the Boston Red Sox’s legendary comeback over the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and the story of how fantasy baseball was invented. It was a huge success, and ESPN would go on to commission additional volumes in the series, now totaling 157 episodes across a variety of formats.

For me personally though, what stands out from the 30 for 30 series isn’t any of the stories themselves. Rather, it’s the advertisements ESPN would run for the series. The screen would flash with “30 FOR 30” stamped on old fashioned red ticket stubs, a piano would play quiet music in the background, and the steady voice of Dahkil Hausif would speak a repeating refrain – “What if I told you….”

“What if I told you…that a country would fail to protect its greatest natural resource?” That was the story of Wayne Gretzky and his trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings.

“What if I told you…he’s the only true Cubs fan?” That was the story about the Cubs fan Steve Bartman interfering with Moisés Alou in the 2003 National League Championship Series.

“What if I told you…that the man no one could stop tragically was.” That was the story about Len Bias and his heart attack two days after being drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics in 1986.

Those ads were iconic for a sports junkie like me. They made me want to hear the whole story, which is of course the point. Hat tip to whoever designed those advertisements, and they are my inspiration for an environmental hero I want to write about.

What if I told you…that something with only 3% of the size can do 33% of the work? This is the story of peatlands.

Peatlands (also known as mires, and including habitats like bogs, marshes, and swamps) are ecosystems where peat forms naturally. Obviously, that begs the question, “What is peat?” Essentially, peat is a soil type consisting of dead vegetation that hasn’t been fully decomposed. It can form in wetlands where the presence of water reduces the exposure of organic matter to oxygen. Without oxygen, the organic matter just builds and builds upon itself without being broken down into its component molecular parts.

It's justifiable if you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal?” In terms of the climate crisis though, peat is a beautiful and critical thing. Peat is an incredible carbon sink, because the partially decomposed vegetation is carbon-rich. Peatlands lock away thousands upon thousands of years of photosynthetic activity – plants that grew from carbon in the atmosphere but which don’t re-release that carbon at the end of their lives.

Because of the unique features of peatlands, they only cover 3% of the Earth’s land surface. As carbon sinks though, they hold about one-third of the carbon that is stored in all of the land on our planet. Think for a moment about all of the forests covering all of the Earth and how much carbon they must contain…….well, peatlands hold more.

The takeaway is that peatlands are precious. They must be protected so that we don’t lose any of the carbon they contain to the atmosphere. Even better, peatland restoration work is ongoing in various locations around the world. These habitats truly are unsung heroes, and their stories need to be told.

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