Irish Bogs: Science, Politics, and Culture

Latest update January 17, 2019 Started on July 20, 2018
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Irish bogs contain many things--artifacts of the past, gorgeous green mosses, and an incredible amount of carbon. That carbon is why Irish bogs have come front and center in the Irish and European climate change conversations.


As a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow, I am headed to Ireland for a year to bring a soil geographer's eye to carbon-rich bogs. This project explores the changing Irish relationship to peatland, including stories about the science, politics and culture of bogs.

July 20, 2018
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In The Field

Digging into Irish bogs in 2019


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Bogs are rich places that contain many things--butter and butterflies, carbon and cranberries, history and habitat, mosses and myths. And within Irish bogs, I have discovered connections to many creative, deep thinking and adventurous people that I am excited to introduce here on this blog.

People you will meet on this expedition are:

  • Wetland archeologists excavating history from the saturated depths of peatlands
  • Foragers harvesting wild-growing food from boglands
  • Falconers hunting on bogs
  • Sculptors using 5,000-year-old wood preserved in peat

I look forward to sharing their stories with you.

Please leave ideas in the comment section for other bog folk I should meet, or let me know if there is something about bogs that peaks your curiosity. You can also tweet ideas to me at @eetoner. Thanks!

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One of the most important parts of my research in Ireland over the last three months has been taking advantage of meetings and conferences where I can meet people with intersecting interests in bogs, science communication, Irish culture, and climate change among other topics. I attended several such gatherings and as a result, was bequeathed a collection of bags.

Thinking back on those experiences, here are a few of my highlights.

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Reindeer, peppermint drops and trumpets in Irish bogs


Lichens are a fascinating part of our world. With more than 13,500 species, they come in many colors and textures from scaley, mint-green flakes on tree bark to smooth, bright red bulbs rearing from mossy rocks.

Reindeer, matchsticks, peppermint drops and trumpets are common names for a few of the lichens that have caught my eye walking in Irish bogs these last three months.

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Icmadophilia ericetorum

Common names: Candy lichen, peppermint drop lichen, spray paint lichen, fairy barf lichen

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Cladonia portentosa

Common name: Reindeer lichen

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Cladonia fimbriata

Common name: Trumpet lichen

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Cladonia floerkeana

Common names: Devil's matchsticks, matchstick lichen

Lichens are the product of a fungus-algae relationship, requiring both partners to exist. What does each one contribute to the lichen? The algae can photosynthesize, using light to form carbohydrates that the fungus can eat. The fungi provides the needed water, absorbing it from the air. They help each other in other ways, too, but that is the basic swap they are making.

Cattle pose a threat to lichens in the bog

Because they do not have roots and take their needed water from the air, lichens are sensitive to air pollution. In Ireland, livestock farming is emitting a lot of ammonia into the air, damaging and even killing some lichens and mosses. Read more about ammonia’s impact on the ecology of Irish bogs in a recent Irish Times article: The trouble with ammonia

Excerpt from the article: “What I saw was white broken bits of lichen, like dead bones,” recalls Sutton, a professor at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Edinburgh. “It was a really dramatic death. In one part of the bog almost all the sphagnum moss was dead. The site was hammered.” The rich diversity of lichens lay dead, replaced by a sick gloop of slimy algae. The cause of this degradation soon became clear: ammonia gas.

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This week, I published a news story in Science Magazine describing Ireland’s move away from peat-powered electricity. Peat, harvested from bogs, has been burned for warmth and cooking in Ireland for centuries. Since 1950, it has also fueled power stations. Ireland currently burns millions of tons of peat each year for electricity generation, but each megawatt hour of electricity from peat releases more carbon into the atmosphere than burning other fossil fuels including coal.

Why is Ireland powering down peat energy and what does it mean for people and bogs? Check out the story in Science Magazine to find out: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/12/power-peat-more-polluting-coal-its-way-out-ireland

Did you know that peat is a fossil fuel?


A fossil fuel is a carbon-based material formed from the remains of plants and animals over a long period of time. Better known fossil fuels include coal, natural gas and petroleum, but the list also includes the material forming in bogs, peat.

Peat forms as plants grow and die in a bog. But what makes a bog different is that, because of wet conditions, what dies in a bog does not fully decompose. As thousands of years of undecomposed plants accumulate, that deep, black peat layer holds a lot of carbon. Approximately 1 millimeter of peat is added to an actively growing bog each year, so it takes 1,000 years for a meter-thick layer to form.

alt Image credit: Kentucky Geologic Survey, University of Kentucky

Peat is actually the precursor to coal. If submerged underground for 250 million years or more, peat would transform into coal. In Ireland, which doesn’t have coal or oil deposits, peat is the most plentiful fossil fuel in the country. Peat is cut from the bog, dried, and burned as a source of fuel, both in homes and also at an industrial scale for power generation.

You can see the process and machinery used by Ireland’s largest peat harvesting company, Bord na Móna, in this video:

Bog with a view


When I am hiking in Ireland, I often encounter a bog. A colleague was surprised to learn that there can be bogs on top of a hills, ridges or mountains, but there are many like that in Ireland. Ireland has a type of bog called a “blanket bog,” which specifically forms in hilly and mountainous landscapes.

The definition of a blanket bog according to Ireland’s National Peatland Strategy is: “...a bog that covers the underlying undulating landscape like a blanket. Atlantic blanket bogs are the main category and are particularly well developed in Counties Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Kerry, Clare and Sligo. Mountain blanket bogs are more widely distributed in hilly terrain (elevation above 200m).”

I found this blanket bog on the Ridge of Capard while hiking in the Slieve Bloom Mountains last weekend. To see more images from that beautiful hike, and other Irish adventures, check out my Instagram account.

Colors of the Bog


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When an Irish person asks what brought me to Ireland for nine months and hears my answer--“peat bogs”--I often receive confused looks. Usually, I think they have misunderstood what I said, so I repeat, “Bogs, you know, peat soil, turf...?” And then, they reassure me that they understood what I said. The confused looks, it turns out, are normally because they just have no idea why I would be so interested.

It is my turn to be surprised because I see so many reasons to be fascinated by their bogs: the vast amounts of carbon (1.5 billion tons) stored in Irish peatlands, the incredible 21% of Ireland covered in peat soil, the unique way that bogs have shaped Irish culture and identity, and the feeling of exploration and delight when I get to walk through a bog.

To my eyes, bogs are unexpectedly colorful and beautiful places. I appreciate these opening lines by Manchán Magan in his Irish Times article reflecting on the place of bogs in Irish art:

“Ireland’s peatlands are as unimaginable to those who have never set eyes upon them as a snowfield is to a jungle-dweller. These richly pigmented realms are as dark as crème brûlée and as textured as tweed, with tints ranging through ochre, olive and emerald to the very brownest of purples.”

I thought the range of colors in a bog might be surprising to some, so I am posting a sample of photos, in order of the rainbow, that I’ve noticed in my first ten bogs visits since I arrived in September.

RED

alt Wild cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccus
) I discovered growing in Clara Bog, County Offaly. alt

REDDISH ORANGE

alt Matchstick lichen (Cladonia genus) I spotted in Mongan Bog, County Offaly.

ORANGE

alt This orange-tinted ground cover at a recovering bog in County Fermanagh is dense with common bog cotton, or common cottongrass, (Eriophorum angustifolium). I visited this bog with colleagues on the Irish Peat Society’s autumn field trip. Though I have listed this under orange, the reddish shading bog cotton gives the bog is why some Irish would refer to a place as the "red bog." Bog cotton adds white fluffy wisps to a bog’s color palette in the summer months and a couple tufts were lingering after I arrived. alt

YELLOW

alt The 23 species of sphagnum moss growing on Irish bogs display a wide variety of colors, from chestnut brown to wine red to light yellow to bright green. I spotted the above sphagnum moss growing in Clara Bog, County Offaly and the below growing in along the Sligo Way, County Sligo. alt

GREEN

alt Different sphagnum mosses grow best in different moisture conditions. This bright green moss, Sphagnum cuspidatum, pictured above grows in the wettest places in bogs, like bog pools or blocked drains. You can see it filling in a wet area in Clara Bog, County Offaly below.

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BLUE

alt Is it cheating to count the sky as part of the bog? I don’t think so, especially given the importance of rainfall to the existence of a bog. There are some big skies to see over Irish bogs, since they provide a wide horizon, like this one I saw over Kilsallagh Bog, County Galway.

PURPLE

alt Ling heather (Calluna vulgaris), a common bog plant, in Clara Bog in September.

PINK

alt Bog-rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) flowering on Mongan Bog, County Offaly. The lovely pink flower is featured on the crest of County Offaly, where I am based during this project. alt

Read about links between bogs and Irish art and culture in the Irish Times article quoted at the top of this post: How Irish culture got sucked in by the bog

Preparation

When I say I am in Ireland researching peat bogs, often one of the first questions that emerges in a conversation is: so, what exactly is a bog?


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It’s not that people have never heard of a bog, it’s just that, like most things, when you really stop to think about something, it can be hard to come up with a definition. A bog is a specific type of place, one that is rich, wet, dark, colorful and special because of the precise characteristics that define it.

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A bog is a type of ecosystem nested within wetland and peatland definitions.

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All bogs are wetlands. The defining characteristic of a wetland is, you guessed it, that it is wet. The water table is at or near the surface and the ground is saturated much of the time. Marshes, swamps, mires, bogs and fens are all types of wetlands.

All bogs are also peatlands. A peatland is a type of wetland where a rich, organic soil has built up over time. The organic soil is a result of the wet conditions where plants grow and die but do not fully decompose. Whereas a normal soil might have 5% or less organic matter, a peat soil has 30% or more. In Ireland, that layer of wet organic soil has to be at least 30 centimeters thick in order be considered a peatland. In the United States system of soil classification, peat soil falls into the category of histosol which is defined by plant material accumulating faster than it can decay resulting in a high percentage of organic matter.

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A bog is a wetland and a peatland, but it has another key feature that makes it even more specific: its only source of water is rain.

It might seem like most places in nature receive water only from rain, but many actually use water that is flowing underground through the soil, or groundwater. Groundwater picks up a lot of nutrients along the way, which plants can use to grow. A bog only receives water from the sky, which is naturally very low in nutrients. That means that plants growing in a bog have to be able to survive very wet conditions with very few nutrients and, to make things even tougher, the conditions are acidic as well.

So, what is a bog? It is a wet place with deep organic peat soil that only receives water from rain.

Peatlands cover a relatively small percentage of land around the world, 3 percent, and within that bogs are only a fraction of peatlands. In Ireland, peat soils cover an unusually high percentage of land, 21 percent, and prior to wide-scale draining, Ireland had 1.1 million hectares, or 2.7 million acres, of bog. The prominence of peat in Ireland is what drew me here to learn about how bogs have shaped what it means to be Irish and how the Irish are reshaping the bogs.

You can see footage of bogs and learn more about the Irish relationship to them from an Irish program called Eco Eye.

I arrived! I touched down on Irish soil one week ago. Here on Open Explorer, you choose whether a post is considered in the “preparation stage” or “mission underway,” which left me with a question:


Where does preparation end and the expedition begin?

When exploring meant boarding a ship and sailing away from home for several months, or mounting a horse and riding into unknown territory, preparation may have ended as you left home. That might have been the point after which, you were simply using supplies, not continuing to add to them. I remember feeling like an explorer of centuries past when I boarded my first transatlantic flight to study abroad in Dublin in 2007. I thought that I needed everything in my suitcase that I was to use while I was there. But, it turns out, you can get almost everything you need once you arrive in Ireland. So, “preparing” is just a matter of deciding what you’d like to carry with you and why.

All of this to say, preparation continues on this side of the Atlantic Ocean now that I am here in Ireland. My first week was spent gathering all of the new cards I will need here.

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My top new cards include:

  • SIM card--I am the proud owner of an Irish phone number.
  • Leap card--the faster, cheaper way to pay for public transportation in Dublin.
  • University College Dublin ID card--I was surprised to see them print my visiting student ID with they photo they had on file from 2007.
  • Business cards--designed and ordered, looking forward to their arrival this week.
  • Dublin public library card--I’m not sure how much I will need this, but I have a love of libraries and consider every new library card in my wallet to be a stamp in my intellectual passport.

I leave for Ireland in one week and one of the big questions I keep asking myself is: how are you going to transport yourself to all of the bogs and people that you want to learn about?


This project will wind into very rural places. I want to find myself on unmarked roads leading to lesser known bogs and easing down narrow driveways for tea with the families whose histories are linked to those places. So, a car will be a key tool while I’m there. A lot of the logistics for a car will happen in Ireland--acquiring one, insuring it, getting comfortable with the rules of the road. Taking a step in that direction, I was able to extend my Indiana driver’s license to an “International Driving Permit” through AAA. alt

The stories I will research also tie directly into the policymaking, research and the energy industry, all of which will have a strong presence centered in Dublin. I want to be able to visit my affiliate, University College Dublin, and academic host professor Florence Renou-Wilson. Staying connected to the urban hub of Ireland also seems important, which I would rather do via train than car. So, as I think about where to live, I want to it be on a main rail line, where I can use one of these stations. alt

As someone who also likes to get around via bicycle, I have also been researching how to check my road bike in as luggage for my flight. I think it will involve a small amount of disassembly and copious amount of plastic wrapping.

While I am in the preparation stage of my expedition, I am making decisions to provision for the trip while also trying to leave as much flexibility for things to unfold organically while I am in Ireland. Preparing for transportation is a good example of my strategy: prepare in a way that leaves as many options open as possible.

Expedition Background

My name is Emily Toner. I am a 2018-2019 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow and I am traveling to Ireland to share stories about the science, politics and culture of peat bogs.


Peat bogs are environmentally and culturally rich spaces. Though covering only 3% of land globally, peatlands hold 25% of the world’s soil carbon. That is the carbon equivalent of half the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, or three times the amount of carbon stored in tropical rainforests. While in the ground, peat soil is a stable carbon reservoir. However, like many carbon-rich natural resources, countries harvest and burn peat as fuel, releasing its carbon back into our increasingly saturated atmosphere.

Peat bogs cover 20% of Ireland and hold an iconic place in Ireland's collective identity. Bogs are also important for Ireland's energy economy because they offer a carbon-rich soil the Irish have burned as fuel for centuries. Burning peat was recently banned by the European Union and Irish government as strategy to mitigate climate change. This project explores the changing Irish relationship to peatland, including stories about the science, politics and culture of Irish bogs.

Image: Two men stacking blocks of peat soil in Ireland in the 1880s, a traditional way to dry the soil before burning in stoves and heaters. Credit: National Library of Ireland.

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