Tropical peat conservation could help fight future pandemics

When I think of peat, I think of Scotch or Irish fireplaces.

When I think of pandemics—pre-COVID, and now—I think about the impending doom of mutant virus strains spreading rapidly through increasingly warmer climates by droves of mosquitoes.

I did not think there was a significant Venn diagram overlap between the two things.

I was wrong. From Popular Science:

Tropical peatlands are swampy forests that are found in regions around the Equator whose peat is composed mostly of dead tree matter, rather than moss as in other latitudes. Although they comprise a small amount of the Earth's landmass, they are home to many species of plants and animals (including orangutans) and are major carbon sinks (areas that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and offset carbon emissions and greenhouse gases). The countries that have tropical peatlands are also mostly low- or middle-income countries. Wildlife harvesting, peat wildfires, and habitat degradation are three things that really affect the peatlands, but they're all more likely to happen in countries with fewer resources.

Harrison and his colleagues reviewed well over 100 papers related to tropical peatland conservation and COVID-19 impacts. They concluded that sustainably managing tropical peatlands "is important for mitigating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and reducing future zoonotic emerging infectious disease emergence and severity."

While peat bogs are great carbon sinks, they can also produce a lot of carbon if they're burned—an increasingly common move in land conflicts. In addition to the climate change contribution, peat bog fires can accelerate the dislocation of animals and their ecosystems, which can lead to animals crossing paths when they normally wouldn't, which can in turn lead to, say, a bat passing a virus to a pangolin, which mutates and leads to some new disease that no one is prepared for. Just, for instance.

Conserving tropical peatlands could be key to preventing the next pandemic [Kat Eschner / Popular Science]

Tropical peatlands and their conservation are important in the context of COVID-19 and potential future (zoonotic) disease pandemics [PeerJ — Life and Environment]

Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons