Inside the search for Africa’s carbon time bomb

Journey into the wilds of the Congo rain forest with scientists trying to locate a shockingly large peatland so that they can help to preserve it.


MBANDAKA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGOIt had been three busy days since Greta Dargie had returned to Mbandaka, a city on the western border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She moved through the local outdoor market in search of a few more pieces of equipment, trailed by a local college student holding a calculator and two porters dragging a wooden cart. It was a treasure hunt.

Doling out fistfuls of Congolese 1000 franc notes from a backpack heavy with bricks of mille moko bills, they’d found cases of squat sardine tins, a sack of rice, a dozen plastic chairs, bales of toilet paper, jugs of gasoline, a bundle of machetes—several tons of food, fuel, and camping gear. There were a few more research and travel permits to get stamped, but they were nearly ready. Soon, they’d motor up the Ruki River, a tributary of the Congo River, in a pair of dugout canoes, in search of another sort of treasure.

“We’re pretty much done,” said Dargie, an environmental scientist at the University of Leeds, arriving back to the peace of Auberge Emma. The walled hotel was out beyond the clouds of dust, incessant honking of horns, and clacking of wooden blocks made by street urchins advertising their shoe shine services.

“Do you think it’s going to fit?” said Bart Crezee, a PhD student from Leeds, staring at the small mountain of cargo they’d assembled in the hotel’s courtyard.

“I don’t know,” said Dargie. “Depends on how long the boat is.”


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Just one thing was missing. Crezee and Nick Girkin, a scientist from the University of Nottingham, each needed a pint of acid for preserving samples they’d collect on their expedition: Nitric acid for Bart, sulfuric acid for Nick. They hadn’t dared bring the corrosive chemicals on the flights from England. They’d figured a drug store in Mbandaka (bahn-DOCK-ah) would stock the acids—both are strong disinfectants. But no luck. They were on a strict timetable, with a limited budget, but they couldn’t leave without the chemicals.

A search for answers
January 11, 2017 is a good a date to explain why Dargie and her colleagues ended up in Central Africa, where the Congo River crosses the Equator. The results of Dargie’s PhD thesis were published on that day. She’d coauthored the paper—now a minor classic in her field—with senior colleagues. In a series of arduous expeditions into some of the Congo Basin’s most remote regions, Dargie and her graduate advisor, Simon Lewis, had discovered a huge deposit of peat—soil consisting of undecayed vegetation—in a flat region called the Cuvette Centrale, in the heart of the Congo rain forest. The previously undocumented peatland flanked the Congo River, its tributaries, and the hundreds of valleys they drain. It was the size of England, what Dargie believes is “the largest tropical peatland complex in the world.”

The paper raised more questions than it answered, however, and Dargie and her team were back in the DRC to investigate them. Most important was how safe the newly discovered peat deposits were from some future disturbance of human or natural origin. And what were the planetary implications if the peatlands were damaged.

Pound for pound, peat is an incredibly carbon-rich soil. Over thousands of years, peatlands can build up into deposits tens of feet thick. Peatlands cover just 3 percent of the earth, but stockpile twice as much carbon as all of the world’s trees and one-fifth of all the carbon stored in soils. If just a third of this peatland burned, the amount of CO2 in the air would double. Scientists say a change like that in the composition of the atmosphere could warm the planet about 5 degrees Fahrenheit, a catastrophic rise.

Fortunately, these carbon repositories, mostly in temperate and polar regions, seem safe for now. Locals and some scientists had known about the flooded forests in the Cuvette Centrale, but hardly anyone thought the soil was peat. Dargie’s discovery astounded and rattled many scientists.

“ … We thought the number was too high and we had to go back and check it,” recalled Dargie. There was no mistake. Her results showed that the deposit contained 33 billion U.S. tons of carbon, as much as in all the trees in the entire Congo rain forest, an area 13 times bigger.

“It’s a whacking big stock of carbon,” says William Laurence, an ecology professor and tropical forest expert at James Cook University in Australia. “Everybody was surprised,” he says.

But it worried them, too. If those peatlands caught fire it could let off three times more carbon than the annual global output of all human activities. It would also destroy an efficient source of carbon storage.

Peatland fire danger
Since 1990, about 250,000 square miles of peatland in Indonesia—an area about the size of France—has been intentionally deforested, drained and planted with oil palm. The results have been disastrous. In 1997, an especially dry year, fires raged on 12 percent of the country’s peatlands, primarily parts that had been converted to agricultural use. The conflagration emitted about 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide, approaching what the entire U.S. releases each year.

Another inferno engulfed Indonesia in 2015. The country’s president, Joko Widodo, has made preventing wildfires, now a perennial problem, a national priority. But widespread blazes in Sumatra and Borneo in the last several weeks suggest the battle might be harder than he expected.

Tropical peatlands are a concern to scientists. With abundant sunlight, heavy rainfall and year-round high temperatures, they are inviting places for industrial agricultural development.

The Congo jungle is where Elaeis guineensis, the most commonly farmed oil palm variety, evolved, so clearly the tree fares well there. Some scientists fear that this region in particular could be targeted for widespread clearing and replacement with industrial oil palm. Already, investors have planted some oil palm plantations in Congolese peatlands.

Up the river to the bog

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