PEATLAND RESTORATION efforts in Scotland are to be helped by satellite technology which can measure their expansion and contraction over time.

In a collaboration between NatureScot, University of the Highlands and Islands, University of Nottingham, and Forestry and Land Scotland, the research will use Satellite Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR), which can map the movement of the ground’s surface.

Researchers have been trialling satellite technology to measure how 'bogs breathe', in order to offer a scientifically-proven way of monitoring changes in peatland condition following restoration.

It could also help to identify areas at high-risk of peat instability, fire and erosion, and highlight where urgent restoration action might be needed. In the future, the technology has the potential to be used to monitor for carbon emissions.

This bog 'breathing' can be influenced by many factors, including precipitation, water level, vegetation composition, micro-topography and land management. By measuring the motion over time, researchers should be able to assess the condition of the peatland and the effectiveness of different restoration techniques on a large-scale.

If developed on a national-scale, the method could provide a better estimate of the amount, distribution, condition and associated carbon inventories of peatlands in Scotland.

Lead author and peatland scientist Chris Marshall, added: “Bog breathing or peat surface motion gives a unique insight into the inner workings of the peatland including its landscape, hydrology and ecology, however the high frequency of ESA sentinel-1 imagery and developments in InSAR processing techniques allows us to monitor peatland condition at a scale unimaginable a decade ago allowing peatland restoration progress to be measured in real time.

“The techniques developed during this work are now being applied as part of a Leverhulme award to determine how resilient the Scotland’s peatlands are to extreme climate events such as wildfire, drought and extreme precipitation events, in order to guide management of these valuable ecosystems during this period of climatic change.”

Co-author and peatland specialist, David Large, explained that this new tool will allow them to see the landscape swell and contract in response to different environmental conditions: "A healthy peatland is wet with lots of soft and spongy sphagnum mosses that swell and retain water," he said. "In contrast, drier peatlands are stiffer and unresponsive to the addition of water. The former moves like a beating heart, whereas a degraded peatland could be described as flatlining!

“This technique is really exciting because it enhances our understanding of peatlands, allowing us to see what we would not ordinarily be able to with the naked eye, making our peatlands more accessible and ensuring restoration takes place in the right place,” he concluded.

NatureScot’s Peatland ACTION report manager, May Shirkhorshidi, commented: “Peatland restoration is a crucial nature-based solution to the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, a key priority as we look towards the COP26 in Glasgow later this year.

“While in the early stages of development, we are excited about the long-term potential of this research, which could help Peatland ACTION to target priority areas for restoration and offer a scientifically-proven way of monitoring changes in peatland condition following restoration."