Expeditions to the planet's remotest carbon sequestering landscapes showcase the importance of peatland protection for our future.


Cambridge Bay, Nunavut - Dan, a manager at the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS), settled into his chair at a laboratory desk and opened a thick binder to begin our safety briefing. “The wolves around here…they’re curious. They’ll move in close and check you out, but they shouldn’t cause trouble. The foxes on the other hand. There’s a lot, and many of them have rabies. If they try to bite at your feet, kick them. Now for bears…”. Our team listened anxiously to Dan’s protocol for polar bear and grizzly confrontation - a situation becoming more likely as the notoriously aggressive fauna has become increasingly comfortable encroaching on the town. 

Although we were unsettled by these safety protocols, it is second nature for the people of Cambridge Bay. This community has co-existed with these animals since the beginning of their emergence in North America’s high latitudes circa 1000 CE. At 70º North, Cambridge Bay’s backyard is the Arctic. Between this town and the North Pole lies a landscape of intense solitude. A hauntingly quiet and uninhabited stretch of rugged islands and frigid oceans blanketed in a maze of sea ice. It is in this remote terrain that our team spent two weeks describing moss, permafrost, and peat. 

Moss, a whimsical and soft vegetation, intensely juxtaposes the rocky and rugged terrain of the Arctic Tundra and its slew of hardcore animal inhabitants. Much like a bristled birds nest caresses a delicate egg, this formidable landscape cradles pockets of this precious vegetation in wetland ecosystems. This moss draws carbon from the atmosphere, and over long periods of time, sequesters it in layers of peaty, decomposed organic matter below the surface - often frozen as permafrost. Peatland ecosystems such as this help to mitigate our planet’s climate. It’s as though the nearly impassible labyrinth of rocky terrain and sea ice surrounding these carbon sinks acts as Earth’s natural “DO NOT DISTURB” signs.

Yet, as climate change poses an ever growing threat to our planet’s wellbeing, it is critical that these carbon sinks are studied and protected. As whimsical and soft as peat-producing mosses may seem, trekking to the far and formidable corners of our planet to find them is anything but whimsical and soft. Our team of geoscientists, led by Dr. Julie Loisel, have explored some of the world’s most remote locations by plane, ATV, truck, and foot with the mission of proving that these carbon sinks are of immense value to our climate, and should be profusely protected and managed.

The photos below highlight our journey across this land. To the untrained eye, the landscape appears to be empty. Absolutely nothing but desolate terrain from your feet to the horizon. To a wetland scientist, this is paradise. And to the Inuits, this is home. Sacred land. The spiritual heritage tied to this land adds a haunting beauty. A curious richness to the seemingly infinite space, the cold wind, and the silence.


Peatlands are the most effective, and largest terrestrial carbon sinks. Altogether, peatlands store billions of tons of carbon in their organic layers over thousands of years, and thus act as a cooling agent for our climate at the global scale. According to the  International Union for Conservation of Nature, peatlands store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined and can be found on every continent 

Peatlands are also a time capsule for the planet - they contain partly decomposed plant fragments, volcanic ash, amoebas, and other relics from earth’s past that can date back to multiple millennia. Peat layers can be read like the pages of a book that contain the history of the local and regional environment. Our projects with moss, peat, and permafrost unveil paleoclimate data that allow us to understand what our climate was like thousands of years ago, and where it might be headed. Furthermore, peatlands provide ecosystem services including water-flow regulation, drought and flood mitigation, species habitats, and food and fiber for local economies. 

While the benefits peatlands provide our planet are plentiful and essential, awareness of these benefits is minimal. Thus, peatlands across the globe are threatened by overexploitation and damage. Mining operations for fuel burn and drain peatlands, releasing harmful amounts of ancient greenhouse gasses back into our atmosphere that took thousands of years to sequester.  This release contributes to about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from the land use sector, or 5.6% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Further impacts of peatland damage include heavy biodiversity loss and decreased water quality (IUCN, 2019).  

Our team’s research on peat helps prepare us for a future in which understanding these ecosystems, their carbon sequestering abilities, and their network of species is paramount to maintaining the health of our Earth. Moreover, having accessible information about this natural landscape is important as local populations face climate change threats. For example, in the Arctic, animal and insect migration paths are shifting and geopolitical pressures regarding resource management and national security are building. In this circumstance of rapid change, protection of these spaces is paramount. 


Cambridge Bay, Nunavut - On our first day on Victoria Island, we walked to the village co-op to stock up on food. Right away, it became apparent that life here isn’t easy. The homes look worn, tired. The streets, muddy and bumpy. Retired, dilapidated fishing boats rested along the shoreline on the side of the road, while dog sleds and snow mobiles dotted rocky front lawns on the other side. Here and there a dog’s bark or the rumble of an ATV would break the sleepy silence of the town. The town’s stillness was only intensified by the minimal movement of the sun in the sky. At this time of year, it didn’t go down. Rather it lingered endlessly between the top of the sky and the horizon. 

Although the lifestyle in Cam Bay is tough, its locals, mostly Inuits, are proud. Their love for their home became obvious when we attended a town meeting and heard strongly voiced desires to keep Cambridge Bay protected from a quickly changing environment. They were concerned about threats of climate change - thawing permafrost that sinks their homes, changing animal and fish populations that affected their food supply, thinning sea ice that thaws too early in the season, and increasing safety hazards. One Inuit elder recounted the emotional story of his childhood home being taken by the sea, while another lamented her parent’s death falling through sea ice that, historically had been safe to fish on. 

Because they witness some of the rapid effects of a warming climate firsthand, their concerns carried a particularly strong weight - weight we took with us out into the field every day in search for answers that would hopefully contribute to solutions for these problems. With their local knowledge on the landscape and their traditional and economic ties to the place, local communities on the fringes of these peatlands play a vital role in their restoration and protection. Government should promote local community engagement and participation in the decision-making and implementation processes involved in peatland management to help local people understand key issues and priorities. 

 Engaging and supporting local communities is a high-priority action listed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to ensure peatland conservation contributes to Paris Agreement goals and SDG’s for emissions reduction  (IUCN, 2019). Polar Knowledge Canada, which operates out of Cambridge Bay, is committed to increasing representation of Nunavut Inuit in its workforce. This is an important step towards integrating community-based peatland management into national and international climate change policy. 


35% of the world’s peatlands have been degraded or destroyed (UN, 2019).  The rest of the 85%, while intact, face threats of urbanization, growing demand for cheap energy in the developing world, melting permafrost and mounting biodiversity loss. While restoring drained and damaged peatlands is paramount to achieving international climate goals, halting peatland degradation before it starts is the most effective governance solution to protecting these sacred spaces.

Paul Hawkins states that  “if protected area of peatlands increases from 8.84 million hectares to 266.7-448.6 million hectares by 2050, approximately 14.9-27 gigaton of carbon dioxide emissions can be avoided”  (Hawkins, 2020). With peatlands in over 180 countries, cohesive governance strategies to achieve this peatland protection is a long shot. However, organizations such as the International Peatland Society (IPS) have established general guidelines that national governments should adopt to manage and preserve their carbon sinks. IPS’s peatlands management guidelines state that,  “good governance means responsible management of peatlands in a manner that is open, transparent, accountable, equitable and responsive to people’s needs" ( Clarke, D., Rieley, J., 2019). This requires regulatory frameworks and legislation at every government scale from local to international. This legislation should provide structure for responsible management and conservation practices that engage people closely associated with the land in economically viable strategies. Moreover, government legislation to restore and protect peatlands should responsibly promote livelihood opportunities for local people, respect their rights, heritage, and traditions” (IPS, 2019). Of parallel importance, the foundation of government’s peatland restoration and conservation legislation should be scientific research performed by experts much like our team. 

As Arctic wetlands face increasing challenges of climate change and geopolitics referred to as a  “new age cold war” by National Geographic , further government intervention that reflects the IPS guidelines above is still required. Not all of our world’s peatlands are in bad shape, however. Many countries have taken strong initiative to protect their carbon sinks.

Chile’s Karukinka, the first ever protected carbon-sequestration park, shines as a beautiful model for effective peatland protection and management. Karukinka Natural Park is situated on the extreme southern end of Chile, in the island system explored by  Magellan in the 1500s and later by Darwin in the 1800s . A flight, boat ride, and seven hour drive away from Santiago, its isolation breeds a truly unique and biodiverse landscape marbled with valuable peatlands. An innovative and conservation-oriented public-private partnership between Goldman Sachs and Wildlife Conservation Society is largely to thank for its survival. Our crew made the long journey to Karukinka in 2018 to collect core samples for biogeochemical analysis. 

"Our Land"

Karukinka translates to “our land” in the language of the Selk’nam people who once called the sub-polar environment home. This title is the purest reflection of what this place means for the world. Each morning of our expedition we’d load up our trucks in the dark and wind down dirt roads through thick old-growth forests as the autumn sky began to glow pink.

These enchanting forests, the southernmost forests in the world, were once heavily exploited for timber. Piles of dead logs still remained throughout the park - ghosts of a darker human relationship with this sacred land. Furthermore, invasive beavers from British Colombia have destroyed much of the land’s tree growth and caused serious damage to the watershed that keeps the peatlands functional.

Recognizing a unique opportunity to preserve one of the most ecologically diverse areas of our planet, Goldman Sachs bought the 680,000 acres, and formed a partnership with Wildlife Conservation Society. This alliance provided private funding for the restoration of the park and provided opportunities to employ and engage with local communities in the project . Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of this public-private land management strategy has been its inspiration to Chilean government. Formerly in the top ten countries to invest the least amount of money in biodiversity and habitat conservation, Chile’s government now uses Karukinka as a model for new conservation efforts throughout Tierra Del Fuego. For example, Chile has partnered with Argentina to heal and restore the ancient forests in Southern Patagonia. This park’s history serves as an example of a viable approach to increased conservation of carbon sinks - private financial institutions can partner with public and government bodies to increase the value of the countries natural assets. 

Now, Karukinka is primarily used by scientists like ourselves to make advancements in understanding the role of peatlands in influencing global climate and ecology. It is our hope that this science will enhance society’s awareness and understanding of these spaces, influencing integrated planning strategies for their protection.


July 2019 / Canadian Arctic - “We worked for hours in the cold wind, constructing our weather tower. The most difficult part was fox proofing the whole structure. Foxes out there chew up anything they can find. My final touch was a chicken scratch sign that said “FOXES KEEP OUT”. A little corny humor here and there felt like the only this keeping us sane once we hit the seventh or so hour in that mosquito infested bog. Assisting the CHARS scientists with their permafrost excavation was challenging and patience-testing as well. The drilling machine would choke up and slip around, making the entire ordeal longer than it should’ve been. But each time we’d pull out a new permafrost core, we were all silenced with a warming sense of awe and wonder. Lifting this ice that had been in the ground for hundreds of years felt like discovering one more puzzle piece to time travel. Each core, only about six inches long, contained paleoclimate information that would reveal what our atmosphere was like hundreds of years ago and where it might be headed. That feeling of awe is why all of us find ourselves in the far and formidable corners of the world. That is why I found myself waking up in my tent this morning so far from home. We do it for our future, and for this land’s future.”

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