Peatlands occupy approximately 3% of the earth’s land surface, but their distribution is heavily skewed towards the Northern Hemisphere’s boreal regions. In fact, recent estimates suggest that outside of the tropics, bogs in the Southern Hemisphere represent just 1% of all the world’s peatlands!
This southern distribution is largely limited to Patagonia, with smaller fragments also found in south-eastern Australia, New Zealand, some of the South Atlantic Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. However, an historic bias towards the study of sites in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in North America and Europe, has left their southern counterparts comparatively under-investigated.
Despite representing only a small proportion of the world’s peatlands, the bogs of southern Argentina and Chile possess a wealth of scientific interest. These peatlands are in many ways unique, owing not just to their geographical location but also the types of plants and animals that inhabit them.
Furthermore, patterns of glaciation during the last glacial period were very different in South America compared to the huge continental ice sheets experienced in the Northern Hemisphere. So whilst peatlands in the north rarely exceed 12,000 years in age, bogs estimated to be 16,500 years old have been found in the south – this means that our peat-based research can extend further back in time than just about anywhere on earth!
Another bonus is that the bogs of southern South America tend to be unaffected by pollution and other human activities. This gives us a great opportunity to examine the bog systems in their natural state – some bogs in the Northern Hemisphere have been modified and damaged by humans not just in the last few centuries but as long ago as Roman times! These bogs have not escaped completely unscathed though. More and more of the sites are being cut for fuel and fertiliser, just like their northern cousins have been for hundreds of years. Let’s just hope that we can learn from the mistakes we have made in Europe and North America in terms of managing and conserving our peatlands so that these unique southern bogs can survive long into the future.