User u/TomakaTom shared a video of the strange sight to Reddit, which showed the ground charred and smoking.
“I found it in Blidworth Woods, which is in a village called Blidworth just on the outskirts of Nottinghamshire [in the U.K.],” u/TomakaTom told Newsweek.
“There had been a fire in those woods a few months back during the heat wave, and so the woods are still all charred and ashy,” u/TomakaTom, who was jogging in the area, continued. “I thought the smoke was a remnant of that fire at first, but it was too long ago and there was heavy rain. So I had an inspection and found that it was just the ground itself that was smoking. There was no fire.”
The ground was hot and dry despite the recent rain, u/TomakaTom said. Many of the comments to the post suggested the smoking could have been from a peat fire.
Peat, also known as turf, is thick organic soil formed from the gradual decomposition of plant matter under low oxygen conditions, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“Normal rapid decomposition of dead plant matter is fueled by oxygen, but oxygen moves 10,000 times slower through water than it does through air,” Richard Lindsay, the head of Environmental and Conservation Research at the University of East London, told Newsweek.
“Waterlogged material quickly uses up what little oxygen there is in the water, leaving only very slow anaerobic decomposition which cannot keep pace with the accumulation of new dead plant matter,” he continued. “So over time an organic layer steadily accumulates, and because organic matter is very good at holding water, this steadily accumulating layer remains waterlogged, meaning that it carries on accumulating more preserved organic matter.
“This can go on for thousands, or even tens of thousands, of years. Some of the world’s deepest and oldest peat deposits are more than 60 meters [197 feet] deep and more than 200,000 years old,” Lindsay said.
Peatlands, like bogs and mires across the world, store up to 550 gigatons of carbon, which amounts to around 42 percent of all soil carbon, despite covering only about 3 percent of the land area.
“Peat can catch fire when it is dry. Dry peat has been used for fuel in Ireland and other places for millennia,” Simon Lewis, a professor of global change science and a plant ecologist at University College London, told Newsweek.
“Peat fires can be dangerous, as they can spread beneath the surface and can burn for months. In Indonesia, bad years for peat fires lead to weeks of burning, with the smoke stopping flights and sending millions of people indoors,” he said.
Peat fires can be dangerous to native wildlife and plant life because of their long-burning tendency and their effects on the soil.
“Peat dries out because of drainage and can then easily catch fire and burn for months. In deep peats, there is a danger of falling through if the underneath has burnt away. If that happens, you probably die,” Ian Rotherham, a former ecology professor at Sheffield Hallam University, told Newsweek.
If you see a peat fire, call firefighters as soon as possible, as it could be serious, Lewis said. The fire can be put out by raising the water levels in the ground soil, but this requires huge amounts of water. A peat fire in North Carolina in 2008 required 2 billion gallons of water to quell the fire, a process that took seven months.
“Firefighters hate fighting peat fires because peat is generally deep, typically 2 to 3 meters deep, and even though flames at the surface may be extinguished, the peat can smolder beneath the surface, sometimes for months,” Lindsay said.
“This subsurface smoldering can be dangerous because an apparently solid burnt surface can hide a smoldering cauldron of ash beneath, and if the surface gives way, it can plunge the unwary into this hot ash cauldron,” he said.
Another major impact of peat fires is the release of the carbon dioxide stored in the soil, adding to the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and increasing the effects of global warming and climate change. According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, peat fires release over 100 times as much carbon as regular wildfires do.
“It’s important to stop these fires, as burning peat is adding carbon to the atmosphere, adding to the crisis of climate change,” Lewis said.
Indonesian peat fires in 1997 alone are estimated to have released between 0.81 billion and 2.57 billion metric tonnes (around 2,832,000,000 U.S. tons) of carbon into the atmosphere. In 2021, 36.4 billion metric tonnes (roughly 40,124,000,000 U.S. tons) of carbon were released into the atmosphere via fossil fuel emissions, according to Statista.
However, it may not have been a peat fire in the video at all, Lindsay said.
“The fact that mineral soil appears to be so close to the surface suggests that this may have been a thick layer of forest litter [dead leaf material] which is now smoldering after a fire. You can see the blackened trunks of trees all around,” he said.
“Without a bit more evidence of what the surrounding [unburnt] ground was like, it’s difficult to be sure,” he continued. “It certainly looks like a typical burnt peat surface, but I’d need to know what the ground-layer vegetation was prior to the fire or in the surrounding unburnt area to be able to make a reasonable stab at whether it is a peatland or not.”
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