Guarded by isolated landscapes and rough ocean waters, Argentina’s remote peatlands are among the world’s most effective and fragile carbon sinks.
By Jimena Martignoni / Photography by Joel Reyero
At the southern tip of South America, between the Strait of Magellan to the north and west and Beagle Channel to the south, the Tierra del Fuego archipelago may hold one of the keys to global carbon sequestration: nearly pristine peatlands. And while rising temperatures and human interventions threaten these boggy climate-change buffers, it is still possible to preserve their wilderness and their ecological performance.
Approximately one-third of the total area of the archipelago is taken up by the southernmost province of Argentina, where the city of Ushuaia, sometimes referred to as the “End of the World,” is located.
What may be the true end of the world, however, is even more remote than this city, at the easternmost tip of land in the archipelago: Península Mitre. Here, the South Atlantic Ocean meets the Southern Ocean, converging at Drake Passage, the water body that provides the shortest route to Antarctica. The end of the world is harsh, isolated—and exceptionally beautiful. It is also guarded by the roughest ocean waters.
About 20,000 years ago, during the Last Glacial Maximum, these lands were covered by ice. When continental glaciers retreated and sea levels began to rise, beginning about 15,000 years ago, the geological forms—valleys, lagoons, lakes—that represent this almost inaccessible region today began to form. And this created favorable conditions for the development of peatlands.
Patagonian peatlands are distributed in humid areas along 1,243 miles from the Chiloé Island (west of mainland Chile) to the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, in both Argentinean and Chilean land. In Tierra del Fuego Province in Argentina, peatlands cover 667,000 acres, of which almost 593,000 acres are concentrated in Península Mitre. The total size of this remote peninsula is about 741,300 acres, and peatlands cover 80 percent of its terrestrial surface.
In 2019, a survey carried out by the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre revealed that Península Mitre is the most important carbon sink in Argentina. The survey results were shared by the Data Visualization Lab at National Geographic and are partially available on the UN Biodiversity Lab platform. Storing 315 million metric tons of carbon, the peatlands sequester the equivalent of more than three years’ worth of carbon dioxide emissions from all of Argentina, the second-largest country in Latin America.
In 2007, members of the International Mire Conservation Group, a nonprofit that encourages and coordinates the conservation of peatlands and mires (peatlands that are actively being formed), conducted a pioneer field trip to the Atlantic coast of Península Mitre. This field trip was the first to have a clear focus on the study of these peatlands and set an important precedent for all following expeditions. The results of the study were published in the peer-reviewed e-journal Mires and Peat in 2014 and argued, “The mires and peatlands of the peninsula are of global significance. They are impressive, peculiar, extensive, and largely pristine mires in a globally very rare climatic and biogeographical context embedded in a landscape with significant natural dynamics.” The study’s authors—Ab Grootjans, Rodolfo Iturraspe, Christian Fritz, Asbjørn Moen, and Hans Joosten—concluded that the area should be a protected location and a World Heritage Site.
Península Mitre and the surrounding areas along the only route from the capital at Ushuaia offer a breathtaking combination of luxuriant woods, greenish-reddish moorlands, and the ever-present Beagle Channel, the latter either intimately close to the road or appearing as a chimerical backdrop flowing into a distant ocean. The woods of southern beeches represent the ancient Nothofagus species that has survived the Southern Hemisphere’s extreme conditions. These landscapes have remained mostly intact and untouched by humans since Charles Darwin’s Beagle voyage in 1832, when the British naturalist arrived at the coast of Tierra del Fuego—making the journey to and through these lands a bucolic, inexplicable, yet naturally hopeful experience.
There are only two ways to approach the borders of Península Mitre by car, via the north coast along the Atlantic and via the south coast along Beagle Channel. The entry from the south is Moat Bay, where the sight of extensive peatlands reveals the first hint of what will be found on the peninsula. The journey along the north coast affords the discovery of never-ending beaches and fantastic green capes, while the south coast is undoubtedly the wildest and most hostile—and therefore most like the end of the world. Once you reach either the north or south access, the exploration of the mainland is possible only by horse or on foot, camping at night or having the rare chance to make a stop at some former rural construction site.
Peatlands are terrestrial wetland ecosystems covered by a thick layer of peat, the organic matter left from the decomposition of plant material that lives under waterlogged conditions and oxygen deficiency over long time periods. Peatlands are primarily wetlands, and as such, the specific types can be peat swamp forests, fens, bogs, or mires. They play major roles in the hydrological cycle: They store water, buffer extreme rainfall events, regulate water quality, recharge groundwater, and mitigate flood and drought. They also play a key role in biodiversity conservation and act as archaeological and paleoenvironmental archives.
However, what makes peatlands so significant for the health and balance of our planet is that they can naturally store large amounts of carbon. They have been doing this for more than 10,000 years. Today, as momentum builds to create a net-zero carbon emissions society, their protection is vital. They cover less than 3 percent of the global land surface, yet estimates suggest they contain twice as much carbon as the world’s forests. Peatlands represent one of the largest carbon pools in the biosphere.
In temperate, boreal, and subarctic regions, where temperatures fall below freezing for long periods, reducing the rate of decomposition, peat is formed mostly by sphagnum mosses, herbs, shrubs, and small trees that grow spontaneously.
The southern South American climate is distinguished by cool summers affected by the Humboldt Current and steady strong winds. But precipitation is the most important factor in the development of peatland plant communities, and it ranges widely in the region. Some areas of the southern Andes that are sheltered from the wind receive 20 to 60 inches of precipitation per year. Here you will find “raised bogs” dominated by a type of moss called Sphagnum magellanicum. The oceanic winds produce very wet conditions in more exposed areas, where annual precipitation exceeds 80 inches per year. The type of peatland that prevails here is the “cushion bog,” where Astelia pumila and Donatia fascicularis are the dominant vascular plants. This unique bog ecosystem is exclusive to the Southern Hemisphere and represents an especially strong carbon dioxide sink. Research suggests that cushion bogs in particular are large carbon sinks compared to counterparts elsewhere on the planet.
Península Mitre and the Moat Bay area—where the land is a relatively pristine natural laboratory with fewer adulterating influences than most ecosystems—allow accurate studies of the direct effects of global climate change on peatlands’ plant communities. These include Astelia pumila, which, according to the “Wild for Life” campaign launched in 2020 by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), is “the sponge champion of the world.” Paradoxically, the three primary superhero plants of this landscape are tiny. Astelia pumila has thick and imbricate leaves that grow to about three centimeters long and appear as compact, prickly groups on the ground. Donatia fascicularis, which usually grows together with Astelia, offers tiny white flowers that bloom during the cool summer. Sphagnum magellanicum, the most typical of the local peatlands’ mosses, has very small revolute leaves with a reddish appearance that make it quite recognizable from a distance—even when seen from the air. The spongy texture of this moss also makes the walking experience unique, the ground feeling as if it’s waving back and forth. The matted plant communities, typical of cushion bogs, appear in the landscape as large, soft surfaces slightly undulated and dotted by small pools of water.
These natural carpets convey a strong sense of original beauty and could become a key destination for landscape lovers and explorers. Protection proposals for the region include the promotion of nature-based tourism with a special focus on a well-balanced relationship between people and nature and the conservation of ecosystems.
As a natural land-based option to sequester carbon indefinitely, peatlands are considered superior for adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change, particularly global warming. However, this unmatched carbon sequestration activity can continue only if peatlands remain in their natural, wet state. In fact, damaged peatlands can become significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Degradation and overexploitation—whether through drainage, conversion for agriculture, burning, or mining—and global temperature increases would result in the release of huge quantities of greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere.
Península Mitre offers hope. Highlighted by UNEP as among the 11 most-relevant peatland ecosystems on the planet, these mires remain rather pristine, so the opportunity to conserve them is greater and more significant than for other peatlands around the globe. Although human activities such as past sheep breeding, logging, cattle grazing, and erosion caused by the introduction of beavers some 50 years ago have changed the original landscape to some extent, high levels of preservation are still possible. Indeed, local protection policies have been implemented over the past 15 years, and the legal fight to create a protected area in Península Mitre has gained momentum over the last five.
At the provincial level, the Secretary of the Environment and the General Directorate of Water Resources of Tierra del Fuego, led by the engineer Adriana Urciuolo, began to reject requests for mining licenses in 2008 and helped create the “Strategy for the Rational Use of Peatlands in Tierra del Fuego.” Supported by national organizations such as Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, international NGOs such as the Wetlands and Poverty Reduction Project, and committed local biologists and hydrologists, the plan calls for peatlands use regulation, protection, planning, and mapping. In 2009, the Andorra Valley, located north of Ushuaia and including a rich ecosystem of peat bogs, glaciers, rivers, and lakes, was declared a Ramsar site, the southernmost in the world. (Ramsar refers to the Convention on Wetlands, an “intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources,” according to Wetlands International, one of its international organization partners. The convention was adopted in 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar.) In 2011, the Secretary of the Environment of Tierra del Fuego also demarcated a “sacrificial area” for regulated peat extraction, the only one in the province, so that the remainder of the site could be preserved.
On Península Mitre, the indefatigable work of Sin Azul No Hay Verde (No Blue, No Green), the marine program of Rewilding Argentina (a U.S.-based NGO formerly known as Conservation Land Trust Argentina/Tompkins Conservation), and many local activists and politicians were key to the reintroduction of a bill to create a Provincial Protected Area. Originally suggested 30 years ago, the bill was officially reintroduced in 2018, in 2020, and again in January 2022; its prospects finally look promising. In the meantime, the province signed a decree in December 2020 that designates Península Mitre a place of environmental interest, establishing temporary protection for the area.
No Blue, No Green also conducted a scientific expedition with Argentine researchers and divers to Península Mitre in February and March 2021. It had two primary objectives: creating an extensive audiovisual survey of both land and marine areas and studying kelp forests. Kelp forests are marine carbon sinks, and in Argentina, 50 percent of these ecosystems reside in the pristine waters of Península Mitre.
Recent research, updates to local policies, and expeditions are pushing the degree of awareness and commitment to preserving these pristine areas higher than ever before. With a location in the Southern Hemisphere, where peatlands are scarce yet so significant with respect to their capacity as carbon sinks, the peatlands in Península Mitre represent not only unspoiled nature but also unspoiled ideas and possibilities.
Jimena Martignoni is a curator and freelance writer specializing in urban and landscape design projects in Latin America. She is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.