McMaster researcher looks to uncover secrets of Wainfleet bog

After a fire this summer that smouldered below ground for weeks, Mike Waddington wants to study the peat bog.
The Wainfleet Bog caught fire last summer, causing the peat moss to burn for several weeks. (Supplied)

Mike Waddington wants to spend his summer digging in the mud of the Wainfleet Bog.

In fact, mucking around in some of nature's stickier sides is how Waddington has spent the better part of the last two decades. It's part of his research as an ecohydrologist and professor in the department of geography and earth sciences at McMaster University, where he studies the processes that make wetlands and watershed ecosystems function. 

After a peat moss fire last summer that smoldered for weeks underground in the Wainfleet Bog, Waddington's interest was piqued and he started planning with the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority to look into what causes the fire, how likely another fire would be and whether restoration efforts currently in place might help prevent fires in the future.

"Unlike a forest fire, which is usually restricted to the forest canopy and has a limited fuel source, peat moss can burn deep down into the peat," Waddington explained. "It's more expensive and more time consuming to extinguish, and the air quality can become quite poor."

Peat lands have historically been harvested — peat moss can be used as both fuel and fertilizer — but once the first layers of moss have been extinguished, the bogs are abandoned, Waddington said. After harvest, it's almost impossible for bogs to restore themselves on their own, leaving dry conditions ripe for fires.

In Wainfleet, the conservation authority has been working on restoring the bog's natural ecosystem after years of harvesting. They've filled in canals, which drained water away from the bog to dry out the peat, planted vegetation, and are constantly monitoring to carefully ease the bog back to a natural state, according to Kim Frohlich, an ecologist with the NPCA.

"We've seen that it is going to a more natural state. Obviously, it will never be pristine, but we're getting closer," Frohlich said, adding they've even started to see populations of animals again that have not been seen in the area before.

"The study (Waddington) is proposing is definitely something that will help our restoration in terms of fire prevention."

Waddington pointed to restoration efforts as a reason the fire this summer only lasted a few weeks, as opposed to a few months like a fire that ravaged the bog in the winter in the late 1990s.

"That probably reduced the impact of the fire," he said, adding the methods the authority is using have been proven to work in similar peat moss sites.

"We can get a full cover of moss in a couple of years and complete restoration after 20-25 years."

Starting in April, Waddington will survey the area to study the effects of this summer's fire to see how much of an effect the restoration efforts had on mitigating the fire and whether they might help to prevent future fires, saving money and time.

"If we have another dry, hot summer like last year, there's a risk it will ignite again," he said. "If we can determine where the risk is the greatest, we can alter the restorations efforts and reduce the fire risk."

Waddington will be accompanied in his research by Dr. Mike Psaric, of Brock University, as well as McMaster PhD student, Max Lukenbach.