BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- The world's largest expanse of peatlands, the Cuvette Centrale peatlands, lies in the central Congo Basin. According to new research, the peatlands are much larger than originally estimated.
The record peatlands comprise 56,000 square miles, larger than the state of New York.
"Our research shows that the peat in the central Congo Basin covers a colossal amount of land," Simon Lewis, a professor at the University of Leeds, said in a news release. "It is 16 times larger than the previous estimate and is the single largest peatland complex found anywhere in the tropics."
Beneath the surface, the peatlands are hiding 30 billion tons of carbon.
"These peatlands hold nearly 30 percent of the world's tropical peatland carbon, that's about 20 years of the fossil fuel emissions of the United States of America," Lewis added.
Peat is the type of soil commonly found in wetlands. It's typically found in cool environs and among dense forest, where decaying plant matter is plentiful. Because peat remains waterlogged, carbon released from decomposing organic matter remains trapped and stored beneath the surface.
Carbon reserves within the Congo Basin have been accumulating for at least 11,000 years.
"Peatlands are only a resource in the fight against climate change when left intact, and so maintaining large stores of carbon in undisturbed peatlands should be a priority," Lewis explained. "If the Congo Basin peatland complex was to be destroyed, this would release billions of tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere."
Researchers from England and the Republic of Congo mapped the Cuvette Centrale peatlands using a combination of on-the-ground field surveys and satellite data. Core samples helped researchers plot peatland depths.
Researchers hope their work -- detailed in the journal Nature -- will encourage the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and international conservation groups to better protect the peatlands.
"Our new peatland map is the first step in understanding this vast ecosystem," Lewis said. "These swamp forests have been wrongly classified in all previous maps. I hope our work encourages much more investment in this neglected region to better understand the role of peatlands within the global carbon cycle and the climate system."