If you've never thought much about peat, that's understandable. An accumulation of partially decayed vegetation that can develop into a material more than 20 feet deep, peat covers just 3% of the Earth. But a lengthy article from National Geographic makes clear it's a powerhouse thanks to its carbon capture capabilities. Daniel Grossman writes that peat manages to "stockpile twice as much carbon as all of the world’s trees and one-fifth of all the carbon stored in soils." So here's the perilous part: If just one-third of our peatland burned, scientists say the amount of CO2 in the air would double—meaning our planet's temps could rise 5 degrees. And while much of our peat seems safeguarded, Grossman follows researchers who set out to see if the same can be said for a recently discovered deposit.
Greta Dargie of the University of Leeds was part of the team that in 2014 found a peatland the size of England deep within a rainforest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Grossman followed her as she returned to answer some big and lingering questions: Chief among them, was the peat safe "from some future disturbance of human or natural origin?" That question isn't answered in the piece—several trips were planned, and years of analysis could follow before Dargie releases her results. But Grossman explains one potential threat: oil palm plantations. Creating them requires draining the soil of much of the water that saturates it, making wildfires much more likely. That's the fate that befell an area of peatland roughly the size of France in Indonesia; in 1997 12% of it went up in flames. (Read the full story for more on their difficult trek.)