DURHAM, N.C. – Curtis J. Richardson, director of the Duke University Wetland Center, has received a $995,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research (DOE-OBER) to study carbon cycling in peatlands.

Richardson is professor of resource ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

The new grant, which was awarded through DOE-OBER’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program, will support his study on phenolic compounds and black carbon feedback controls on peat decomposition and carbon accumulation in southeastern peat.

Peatland ecosystems are among Earth’s most efficient carbon sinks. Globally, they are estimated to store more than 550 gigatons of carbon in their saturated soil, a value that approaches nearly one-third of earth’s carbon stock. This carbon, captured from the atmosphere, can be stored in the saturated peat for millennia due to the presence of naturally occurring phenolic compounds which inhibit microbial decomposition.    

In recent years, however, large areas of peat wetlands worldwide are being burned or drained for agriculture, forestry and to harvest the peat for energy. The organic carbon that is normally stored underwater is exposed to air, dries and decomposes, and emits carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Climate change is adding to the problem.  

“The main question we are addressing is how southern peatlands continue to store carbon and release lower amounts of greenhouse gases compared to northern peatlands, even under climate-driven increases in temperature and extended droughts,” Richardson says. “The research focuses on the role of phenolics and black carbon, both antibacterial carbon compounds, as biogeochemical controls on peat decomposition along a latitudinal gradient from Minnesota to Panama. What we learn will provide us with new approaches for managing storage and losses of carbon from millions of acres of peatlands worldwide.”

Over the course of his more than 40-year career, Richardson has led pioneering studies on wetlands loss and restoration in the Everglades; along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast; in rapidly developing urban landscapes of North Carolina; in the heavily degraded Mesopotamian marshes of Iraq; and in other threatened wetland ecosystems worldwide. He has authored more than 100 peer-reviewed papers or books, including “The Everglades Experiments: Lessons for Ecosystem Restoration,” published by Springer in 2008 and considered seminal in the field. He also co-edited the widely used textbook  “Methods in Biogeochemistry of Wetlands,” published in 2013 by the Soil Science Society of America.

In recognition of his accomplishment, Richardson received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Wetland Scientists in 2013, was named National Wetlands Scientist of the Year in 2006, and has been elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Soil Science Society of America, and the Society of Wetland Scientists.