Pupils find climate change in the Peak District
13 April 2011
Sixty years ago this Sunday the Peak District became the first of Britain’s national parks. The new status was not only a recognition of the unique landscape, but also a way of protecting the area for future generations.
But now the moorlands are facing a major new challenge - from climate change.
Over the last three years local school pupils from across the Southern Pennines have headed into the Peak District National Park to examine how we affect the moorland, and how it reacts to global warming.
As part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science, the pupils spent a day in early March studying soil quality, vegetation cover and water table levels. They took samples back to school for further analysis by scientists.
Since the first 'moorland sample day' was held with the Festival of Social Science 2008, the project has involved over 20 schools around the Peak District National Park.
"There has been an increased sense of ownership and responsibility by pupils for their local environment and the National Park, and how it links to the global challenge of climate change," says Chris Robinson of the Peak District National Park Authority, who initiated the event.
"The value of these visits for students has been increased by their experience in team work and outdoor learning."
Through the project Moorland Indicators of Climate Change Initiative (MICCI), secondary school students explore whether the peat functions as a 'carbon sink' absorbing and storing carbon dioxide, rather than as a 'carbon source' releasing the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
The Peak District Moorlands currently stores between 16 and 20 million tonnes of carbon, and together with the rest of the UK's peat lands forms the single largest carbon reserve in the UK, storing the equivalent of 20 years of UK carbon dioxide emissions.
The climate benefits are substantial: peat land restoration in England and Wales is estimated to potentially absorb around 400,000 tonnes of carbon a year - equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 84,000 family-sized cars.
However, human factors such as direct erosion and fires worsen the condition of the moorland, with badly eroded areas of the Peak District releasing more carbon than they absorb. The MICCI measurements help to shed light on today’s changes in the moorland environment, as well as putting pupils in contact with researchers and giving them insight into science at work.
Data collected by the pupils during MICCI 2010 show indications of degraded moorland habitats and carbon leakage.
Dissolved organic carbon was found to increase in areas with low water tables, confirming the findings of other studies.
A low water table is a sign of damaged moorland, as the peat dries out quickly and water escapes through cracks in the peat - leading to large areas of bare peat and high erosion rates. As the peat is no longer water-logged, old plant material decomposes more rapidly and leaks higher rates of carbon into the surrounding waterways.
More data will be collected over the coming years, in order to monitor changes in water levels, dissolved organic carbon and vegetation.
"Ongoing monitoring of the condition of our peatlands is vital in order to inform land management practices in the face of predicted changes in climate," concludes the MICCI 2010 report.
And with the help of local pupils, the Peak District National Park might hopefully make its next anniversary in peak condition.