The focus of this project are peatlands, essential and often overlooked agents of climate change mitigation. The long history of human interaction with peatlands has led not only to their environmental degradation, but also to rich cultural connotations that mark them as important, both as ecosystems and as cultural elements of many human civilisations.
Together with dance artists Fiona Millward and Petra Söör, and biogeochemist Angela Gallego-Sala (as the performance art and science research collective A Field of Us), I’m working on a live performance and interactive installation to connect members of the public around the world with the state of the most endangered peatlands in their own countries and globally.
The centrepiece of the installation will be a set of agar plates on which we will grow peatland microbiomes, the bacteria, archaea and fungi which make up the usually invisible engines at the core of peat formation. Each peatland has its unique microbiome.
During a choreographed movement ritual at the beginning of the conference, dancers will distribute pore water – collected from some of the most endangered peatlands – on human-sized agar plates, one per peatland. Over the following days, the agar will visibly transform with the growing microbiome cultures. The plates will display different microbial patterns, in response not only to each peatland’s microbiome, but also in response to each dancer’s microbiome, which becomes mixed with the pore water sample during the ceremony.
The installation reflects on the relationship and impact of humans upon the peatland environment. Alongside the plates, we will exhibit images, sounds and traditional stories for each individual peatland. In this way, visitors to the installation will have the chance to witness the living engine that transforms live plant matter into stored soil organic carbon and also to reflect on the human-peatland relationship, which has been largely destructive from the human side, exacerbating climate change.
The installation aligns with themes of climate change, nature, adaptation and resilience. We aim to inspire an international conversation that is grounded in locale-specific issues, about the need to value, maintain and restore peatlands as main actors in climate change mitigation. Peatlands are globally important ecosystems in terms of biodiversity, water provision and carbon storage. Overall they accumulate as much carbon as is stored in the atmosphere and more than all the trees on Earth put together. Carbon has slowly been accumulating in peatlands over millennia. This ancient carbon store is not inert, but highly vulnerable to climate change and to anthropogenic pressures. That means that peatlands can become major carbon emitters, as recent peatland fires in the UK and further afield in Indonesia or Russia testify. The IPCC Special Report on “Climate Change and Land” (2019) highlights peatland ecosystems as an important climate change mitigation option. Such nature-based solution involves both conservation of pristine peatlands as well as restoration of degraded peatlands. Worldwide, 15% of all peatlands are considered to be in a degraded state, this percentage rises to 80% for UK peatlands.
We are working with project partners at Universities in China, Colombia, Mexico, Finland and Canada and at the University of Exeter, each collaborator representing a different type of peatland under unique existing pressures. The wide geographical distribution highlights how ubiquitous peatlands are, and allows us to connect to the varied cultural heritage that has evolved around them. Many of our collaborators work alongside indigenous communities who can be particularly affected by peatland degradation. These communities will be invited to record their traditional management strategies and share their knowledge alongside the science, as well as contributing local history and stories. We are also collaborating with RE-PEAT, a group of young climate activists. In this way, we are ensuring that affected communities are heard at all the different levels on which our network operates: locally, nationally and internationally.