Scientists from the University of the Highlands and Islands have been awarded nearly £1m to undertake a research programme into the peatlands of northern Scotland.

Dr Roxane Andersen, from the Environmental Research Institute at North Highland College UHI, will use the £986,000 funding to explore how climate change could affect blanket bogs and to assess the effectiveness of restoration efforts.

The research leadership award, provided by the Leverhulme Trust, will enable Dr Andersen to develop a team of nine researchers, who will conduct the investigations over a five-year period.

They will use cutting-edge technologies and techniques, including satellite remote sensing, to investigate how we can protect and restore blanket bog areas. Peatlands are renowned for their ability to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, to promote biodiversity and to provide high quality water.

The Thurso-based scientists will benefit from access to the Flow Country, the largest blanket bog in Europe and a region that is under consideration for World Heritage Site status – joining the ranks of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon in America and the Taj Mahal in India.

The project will also support new initiatives across the university’s research centres and foster national and international collaborations, including work with Canadian peatland research groups.

Dr Andersen said: “Peatlands are the Earth’s most efficient terrestrial carbon store. They regulate water and climate and support unique biodiversity.

“However, their degradation affects the delivery of these key functions. In the UK, the cool, wet climate supports a globally rare peatland type: blanket bogs.

“Most UK blanket bogs have been degraded by human activities and, left alone, they make a significant contribution to our greenhouse gas emissions from the land use sector. However, unprecedented efforts to restore our blanket bogs are under way, for example through the Peatland Action programme in Scotland.

“Astonishingly, we do not know the extent to which these interventions work or how blanket bogs, restored or otherwise, will cope with the added threat of climate change.

“I am thrilled to have been chosen by the Leverhulme Trust for this Research Leadership Award. I look forward to working with my team to pioneer approaches from molecular to landscape scales to fill some of these gaps in our knowledge and to inform UK and global peatland management strategies.”

The project will focus on three key areas of research. The team will explore how environmental conditions can affect Sphagnum mosses, one of the building blocks of peat in blanket bog.

They will continue to develop a method that uses satellite data to measure how the seasonal patterns of swelling and shrinking of bog surface, known as “bog breathing”, change in response to climate extremes and restoration activities. They will also work to refine models that predict how blanket bogs may respond to different management approaches in future climate change scenarios.

Emma Goodyer, manager of the International Union For The Conservation Of Nature Uk Peatland Programme, said: “The area covered by near natural peatland worldwide (over three million square kilometres) stores more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined. However, drained and damaged peatlands contribute about 10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from the land use sector annually, despite covering only 0.4% of the global land surface.

“Scotland has become a global leader in peatland management. The research hub in the Flow Country has been instrumental in delivering programmes of research that tackle some of the most pressing issues for peatland restoration and policy. This significant funding boost will offer the opportunity to understand the resilience of peatland ecosystems in the face of the climate crisis whilst also reversing biodiversity losses.”

The Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland has bogs in the tundra-like landscape that have been growing since the end of the last Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago. The area’s peat is up to 33ft deep and its soil stores about 100 million tons of carbon.

Wildlife in the area include otters, deer and common scoter ducks.

In the UK, common scoters breed at only a few locations, including the Flow Country and the lochs and and glens near Inverness.

Six of the UK’s 31 World Heritage sites are in Scotland.