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Tropical peat swamp forests overview

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Investigators: Charles HARVEY (MIT)
Research Scientists: Alex COBB (SMART)
Postdoctoral Associates: CHUA Siew Chin (SMART)
Research Engineers: Idaly Ali (SMART), Muzafar Rasheed (SMART)
Students: Hayley WIN (Ngee Ann Poly), Rachel Lam (NTU), Ezra Hu (NTU)

Description: To study the carbon budget in peat swamp forests in Brunei, and more generally the role of peat forests in the global and regional carbon cycle.

​​​Why study the peat forest?

Tropical peat swamp forests store atmospheric carbon dioxide in the form of peat, partly decomposed wood and other plant parts.  Therefore, their dynamics affect the strength of the greenhouse effect and global climate change.  The peat swamp forest of Brunei Darussalam is an endangered ecosystem, having lost 50% of its forest cover in just 20 years from 1990 to 2010 (Miettinen et al. 2011).  These forests can store organic carbon over millennia in the form of peat deposits, called peat domes, that are over 12 m deep in places.  However, once disturbed, this carbon is again released to the atmosphere.

The study area

Field research focuses on two study areas in the Belait district (Figure 1).  One, called the ``Mendaram Site'' because it is accessed by the Mendaram River, is a pristine site dominated by Shorea albida.  The other, accessed by the Damit River and called the ``Damit Site'', is a deforested site that was logged by rail for over 30 years.  Because logs were removed without digging canals, the Damit Site is undrained, though deforested.

Aim of project

The project's overall goal is to understand the processes that lead to peat accumulation and loss so that we can describe the dynamics of peatlands, including the effects of different management strategies and other external changes.
The project comprises three main objectives:

  • Objective 1: Describe and quantify the carbon balance of the Mendaram and Damit peat domes, including both surface-atmosphere exchanges and groundwater exports;
  • Objective 2: Measure and characterize processes that contribute to peat formation and decomposition; and
  •  Objective 3: Characterize forest dynamics of the Ulu Mendaram site, including population biology of the major species.

The three objectives are deeply interrelated because the overall carbon balance of the sites cannot be understood without examining the processes driving carbon exchange.  The hydrological dynamics of the sites control peat accumulation and loss, while the gradual accumulation of peat directly affects the area's hydrology.  Meanwhile, the rate at which peat accumulates is indirectly but strongly affected by the dynamics of the major plant species at the site.  As trees at the site germinate, grow, and die, the wood of dead trees that becomes waterlogged later forms peat, linking the rate of peat accumulation to their life cycle.


Figure 1: Study sites for the peat forest carbon project (A).  The Damit Site (B), accessed by the Damit River, was formerly the site of a timber concession and has been deforested but not drained.  The Mendaram Site (C), accessed by the Mendaram River, is a pristine peat forest dominated by Shorea albida.


Miettinen J., Shi C., Liew S.C., 2011. Two decades of destruction in Southeast Asia’s peat swamp forests. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10 (3), 124–128.

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