Mismanaging Wales’ uplands could have a significant impact on climate change because they contain billions of tonnes of carbon and carbon dioxide, scientists will warn today.
The management of the nation’s uplands to conserve historic stocks of carbon and future carbon storage will be discussed by scientists, conservationists, land managers and economists at a conference held in Aberystwyth University.
The discussions follow a Land Use Climate Change Report presented to the Welsh Government in March 2010 which estimated that around 500 million tonnes of carbon and up to 1.9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide may be stored in Welsh soil.
Dr Dylan Gwynn Jones, senior lecturer in ecology at Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Ibers), said Wales has a significant history in the global carbon economy.
“The industrial revolution was fuelled by Welsh coal and natural resources” he said.
“Such human harnessing of resources and energy has traditionally been at the expense of the environment.
“However, now there is a clear focus that future development must be sustainable and low carbon.”
Dr Jones added: “Upland Wales was traditionally characterised by low input pastoral agriculture as the backbone of its economy.
“Other more recent uses have been tourism and renewable energies.
“However, alongside all these other elements and biodiversity value sits the precious resource of carbon that must be preserved for the future.”
The Aberystwyth conference has been organised by the Ecology Research Group at Ibers, with the support of the Natural Environment Research Council.
Organisations represented at the event include RSPB Cymru who this week called on Brussels for greater support of wildlife conservation measures in the Welsh uplands, including carbon storing measures.
Katie-Jo Luxton, RSPB Cymru director, said farmland bird populations had fallen by 50% since 1970.
She said: “It is only by protecting wildlife-rich farming systems and encouraging more uptake of science-backed conservation measures on farmland that species like lapwings, curlews and yellow hammers will bounce back.
“There is a very real and looming threat to many countryside birds.
“Without proper support farmers across the UK will not be able to put in place the measures needed to protect birds and other wildlife.
“High Nature Value systems already provide a range of vital services for society including maintaining some of Europe’s most threatened habitats and species, contributing to soil carbon storage and the protection of water resources.
“However, such systems are economically fragile and many farmers face a stark choice between intensifying production or abandoning farming altogether.”
Welsh scientists have also warned that droughts brought on by climate change may cause peat to release far more carbon dioxide into the environment than previously realised, making the effects of climate change worse.
Research by academics at Bangor University on test sites in Wales have revealed that droughts can “unlock” carbon in peat that has previously been trapped for centuries thanks to the “wetness” of peat – and the effects could last for as long as a decade afterwards.
Dr Nathalie Fenner, lead author of the research, warned that Wales could feel the repercussions both in higher emissions than previously thought and in a decrease in water quality.
Dr Fenner said: “As our global climate and rainfall patterns change, our peatlands may not have sufficient opportunity to recover between these drought-induced episodes of CO2 loss.
“What we previously perceived as a ‘spike’ in the rate of carbon loss during drying out, now appears far more prolonged – with a potential peak after the initial drought period is over.”
The research was largely conducted across peatlands in Mid and North Wales, including Cerrig-yr-Wyn, in the Plynlimon area of the Cambrian Mountains, which the team had long-term data for since 1992 for natural droughts and simulated, experimental droughts.
Experiments were also conducted at Cors Goch on Anglesey and at the Migneint bog, in central Snowdonia.
The increase of dissolved organic carbon in the water is likely to bring “extra problems and expense” to the water supply industry because it interferes with the treatment process, with the possibility of inflated bills for consumers, Dr Fenner said.
Dr Jones added: “This meeting will link the ecology and economy of upland Wales with its soil carbon resources.
“We will discuss future threats to these resources, including whether upland areas should be managed for carbon capture, particularly in light of future climate change.
“We will also debate whether policy drivers should be used to integrate carbon storage with the needs of biodiversity conservation.
“Further consideration will be given to the growing practice of countries valuing management of soil carbon stores in order to offset further carbon emissions.”
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