Swamp fires. How do those work? Despite our recent droughts, swamps are wet by definition, are they not? They are. And does water not fight fire? It does. So what conditions then make for a burning swamp or two? In a word? Peat. A word you’ve probably heard plenty throughout your life, whether you are an experienced gardener or not, but likely do not know so much about. Are you tired of this question-and-answer, call-and-response style opening paragraph? You are not alone. Let’s speak on peat then.
Peat, an extremely inflammable soil-like substance, is, confusingly, a direct product of massive moisture and a lot of time. In essence, it is the younger sibling, as well as the great-great grandfather, of coal and oil. Peat is created in chronically waterlogged bogs and swamps through the slow anaerobic decomposition of plant matter, which also then grows atop it for a few thousand years, effectively smooshing a bunch of carbonous material together into a thick and very burnable mush. Given a few more thousand years and a bit more geological and gravitational pressure, peat becomes coal. The pipeline from coal to oil is not so direct, but all three of these substances are essentially formed from hyper-compressed, extremely decomposed plant matter full of carbon and therefore an excellent source of heat and fuel. When they burn, the swamps of New Orleans—while not quite so inundated with peat as wetlands farther north—still have more than enough of this old carbon buildup to keep the skies smoky for months on end.
It is actually mindblowing how minimally the importance of peat, even its very existence, makes it into the larger conversation around climate change. Although the vast majority of commercial peat harvesting occurs in Canada, Ireland, Scotland, and Russia, peatlands account for about 3% of the Earth’s ecosystems and can be found from Southeast Asia to Northwestern Canada and everywhere in between. Why does it matter? Because peat accounts for up to 44% of all soil carbon on the planet, and exceeds the amount of carbon stored throughout literally everywhere else, including the world’s forests, yes, the rainforests as well. Wildfires caused by drought caused by climate change that causes more drought and climate change, like icebergs melting and all the rest of it, are already a huge focus of the media and your casual, concerned environmentalist; but peat-based wildfires, which release more carbon per capita by a wide margin than burning forests on the West Coast, deserve our immediate attention. What is happening literally in our backyard right now is easily as significant to the future of New Orleans, the Southeast at large, and the world, as any of the other myriad catastrophes we face all too often and ever more here. When peatlands are wet and not on fire, never mind the carbon they sequester, they also help lower ambient temperatures, minimize flood and drought, and per our most recent apocalyptic incursion, help prevent seawater intrusion.
Commercially and practically, humans use peat as an energy and heat source, and have been doing so for a few thousand years. It stands to reason that peat burns well and for a long time, being full of carbon and all. One in seven households in Ireland still uses peat as a primary household heating source (full disclosure: I kind of like the smell of smoldering swamp as it sweeps through New Orleans—it makes me nostalgic for the Irish countryside; so what if it gives me a migraine too? I cannot help myself). It is of course terrible for the environment as such because burning peat releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, but between tradition and necessity by way of poverty, it is hard to get much of the world to stop burning peat.
The other primary use of peat is in horticulture. Yes, I’m the problem, it’s me. Peat is an absolutely fantastic soil amendment for seed starting, growing starts, and potting mixes for house plants and raised bed gardens. It increases moisture-holding capacity while simultaneously improving drainage. Most potting soil mixes and seed starting mixes include peat in their recipe. I say “other primary use” but the commercial sale of peat moss in the horticultural industry is huge and very much the primary reason peat bog reservoirs are disappearing. In parts of the U.K., the sale of peat moss is being outlawed in an attempt to mitigate climate change. In the U.S. most of our peat is harvested and shipped from Canada.
In the horticultural world there is an extremely and oft-confused counterpart to peat moss, which is sphagnum moss. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably but are actually two different things. Peat moss is derived from (very slowly) composted sphagnum moss; the organic matter that peat is made of is pretty much entirely dead sphagnum (sorry it is not dead bodies and old dinosaurs). Live sphagnum is harvested for ornamentation and for potting plants that need excessive amounts of air and moisture alike, for example, orchids or carnivorous plants, that is to say, swampy plants that one might find growing in a bog, where sphagnum moss is omnipresent.
One might think that harvesting and using fresh sphagnum is not as terrible for the environment as harvesting the peat that takes millenia to replenish. The thing is, sphagnum also grows really slowly, taking centuries to grow back itself. In fact, removing it from the surface exposes and disrupts the environment below in which peat lays, increasing methods and means through which the carbon therein will be released into the atmosphere.
Sphagnum and peat marketeers will have you believe that they are putting back what they are taking away, that peat is a renewable resource. And while replanting sphagnum is becoming common practice within the industry, again, it can take literal centuries for sphagnum to grow substantially, and then again, millenia for it to decompose into energy dense, carbon storing, violent climate change combating peat.
At present, within the gardening industry, there is only one reasonable, ethical, environmentally sound alternative to peat moss, and that is coco fiber, also known as coco coir. It is made with leftover husks from industrial coconut production, and on the spectrum, is extremely sustainable and renewable. Despite this, it is prohibitively expensive for most, and as of yet, nearly impossible to find in premixed potting soil products. This is very much a result of supply and demand and marketing and late capitalism and all those other relevant buzzwords that are literally melting our world in real time. And honestly, for now, I myself am stuck using peat in my seed growing mix. And while I would love to be the change I want to see in the world and all of that, there is only so much one can do in a growth-addicted economy such as ours. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, the world is burning to the ground, and the best we can do is the best we can do.
illustrations by Rachel Speck