Peatlands occupy vast areas of the globe. Northern peatlands cover roughly 7 million square miles or approximately 16 percent of the world’s land surface. Most are found in Russia (60 percent) and Canada (30 percent), but they also cover roughly 120 million acres in Alaska’s interior. The US southeastern Coastal Plain contains roughly 6 million acres of peatlands, but they are also found in wet meadows and prairies in the Midwest. Tropical peatlands are widely distributed
but are found principally in Southeast Asia.
Fire is a natural, critical process in the development of many of these peatlands, which commonly contain fuels that support high fire intensity, rapid spread rates, and long-range spotting during high winds after brief drying.
If fires occur during periods of extended drought or where peatlands have been drained, extended ground fires occur, resulting in greenhouse gases, smoke, and high firesuppression costs. Multi-million dollar, months-long fires are becoming increasingly common in the southeastern United States, as are multiple-fatality accidents on smokeshrouded
FFS research forester Kevin Ryan, working with an international team representing the Indonesian Climate Change Center, the Australian Agency for International Development, the US Agency for International Development, the Forest Service’s International Program, South Dakota State University, and the University of Montana, is studying peatland fire behavior and its effects. In addition to research on the US Coastal Plain, the team is researching peatlands in
Indonesia and working on improved models for the ignition and burnout of tropical peat soils, improved atmospheric emissions estimates from peatland fires, and long-range forecasting of critical fire weather. Although focused on the island of Borneo, this research will have broad applicability to global peatlands.