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Poplar growing on muskeg Poplar muskeg.JPG
Poplar growing on muskeg

Muskeg (Ojibwe: mashkiig; Cree : maskīk; French : fondrière de mousse, lit. moss bog) is an acidic soil type common in Arctic and boreal areas, although it is found in other northern climates as well. Muskeg is approximately synonymous with bogland, but "muskeg" is the standard term in Western Canada and Alaska, while 'bog' is common elsewhere. The term became common in these areas because it is of Cree origin; maskek (ᒪᐢᑫᐠ) meaning low-lying marsh. [1] Large tracts of this soil existing in Siberia may be called muskeg or bogland interchangeably.


Muskeg consists of dead plants in various states of decomposition (as peat), ranging from fairly intact sphagnum moss, to sedge peat, to highly decomposed humus. Pieces of wood can make up five to fifteen percent of the peat soil. Muskeg tends to have a water table near the surface. The sphagnum moss forming it can hold fifteen to thirty times its own weight in water, allowing the spongy wet muskeg to form on sloping ground. Muskeg patches are ideal habitats for beavers, pitcher plants, agaric mushrooms and a variety of other organisms.


Muskeg forms because permafrost, clay or bedrock prevents water drainage. The water from rain and snow collects, forming permanently waterlogged vegetation and stagnant pools. Muskeg is wet, acidic, and relatively infertile, which prevents large trees from growing, although stunted shore pine, cottonwood, some species of willow, and black spruce are typically found in these habitats. [2] It needs two conditions to develop: abundant rain and cool summers. A dead plant that falls on dry soil is normally attacked by bacteria and fungi and quickly rots. If the same plant lands in water or on saturated soil, it decomposes differently. Less oxygen is available under water, so aerobic bacteria and fungi fail to colonize the submerged debris effectively. In addition, cool temperatures retard bacterial and fungal growth. This causes slow decomposition, and thus the plant debris gradually accumulates to form peat and eventually muskeg. Depending on the underlying topography of the land, muskeg can reach depths greater than 30 metres (100 ft).


Although at first glance muskeg resembles a plain covered with short grasses, a closer look reveals a bizarre and almost unearthly landscape. Small stands of stunted and often dead trees, which vaguely resemble bonsai, grow where land protrudes above the water table, with small pools of water stained dark red scattered about. Its grassland appearance invites the unwary to walk on it, but even the most solid muskeg is spongy and waterlogged. Traveling through muskeg is a strange and dangerous experience for the unaccustomed. Muskeg can grow atop bodies of water, especially small ponds and streams. Because of the water beneath, the muskeg surface sometimes ripples underfoot. Thinner patches allow large animals to fall through, becoming trapped under the muskeg and drowning. Moose are at a special disadvantage in muskeg due to their long legs, minimal hoof area, and great weight. Hunters and hikers may occasionally encounter young moose in muskeg-covered ponds submerged up to their torsos or necks, having been unaware of the unstable ground.[ citation needed ]

Surface strength

Heavy equipment breaking through thawing muskeg in Wabasca oil field, Alberta. Muskeg D6 caterpillar.jpg
Heavy equipment breaking through thawing muskeg in Wabasca oil field, Alberta.

Muskeg can be a significant impediment to transportation. During the 1870s, muskeg in Northern Ontario was reported to have swallowed a railroad engine whole when a track was laid on muskeg instead of clearing down to bedrock.[ citation needed ]

Many other instances have been reported of heavy construction equipment vanishing into muskeg in the spring as the frozen muskeg beneath the vehicle thawed. Construction in muskeg-laden areas sometimes requires the complete removal of the soil and filling with gravel. If the muskeg is not completely cleared to bedrock, its high water content will cause buckling and distortion from winter freezing, much like permafrost.

One method of working atop muskeg is to place large logs on the ground, covered with a thick layer of clay or other stable material. This is commonly called a corduroy road. To increase the effectiveness of the corduroy, prevent erosion, [3] and allow removal of material with less disturbance to the muskeg, a geotextile fabric is sometimes placed down before the logs. However temporary winter access roads on muskeg (ice road), created by clearing the insulating snow and allowing the muskeg to freeze, are more commonly used as they are cheaper to construct and easier to decommission. Water is often sprayed on these roads to thicken the ice allowing heavy trucks and equipment to safely access remote sites in the winter.[ citation needed ]

In fiction

In Jack London's short story, "Love of Life," the starving protagonist eats muskeg berries along the trail. "A muskeg berry is a bit of seed enclosed in a bit of water. In the mouth the water melts away and the seed chews sharp and bitter. The man knew there was no nourishment in the berries, but he chewed them patiently with a hope greater than knowledge and defying experience."

Also, in Rick Riordan's young adult novel The Son of Neptune , one of the protagonists accidentally gets swallowed by muskeg soil as a trap laid by the Earth goddess Gaia.

Gordon Lightfoot references muskeg in his song "Canadian Railroad Trilogy": So over the mountains and over the plains Into the muskeg and into the rain

Related Research Articles

Peat Accumulation of partially decayed vegetation

Peat, sometimes known as turf, is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter. It is unique to natural areas called peatlands, bogs, mires, moors, or muskegs. The peatland ecosystem covers 3.7 million square kilometres and is the most efficient carbon sink on the planet, because peatland plants capture CO2 naturally released from the peat, maintaining an equilibrium. In natural peatlands, the "annual rate of biomass production is greater than the rate of decomposition", but it takes "thousands of years for peatlands to develop the deposits of 1.5 to 2.3 m [4.9 to 7.5 ft], which is the average depth of the boreal [northern] peatlands", which store around 415 gigatonnes of carbon (about 46 times 2019 global CO2 emissions). Globally, it even stores up to 550 gigatonnes of carbon, representing 42% of all soil carbon and exceeds the carbon stored in all other vegetation types, including the world's forests. Across the world, peat covers just 3% of the land’s surface, but stores one-third of the Earth’s soil carbon. Sphagnum moss, also called peat moss, is one of the most common components in peat, although many other plants can contribute. The biological features of sphagnum mosses act to create a habitat aiding peat formation, a phenomenon termed 'habitat manipulation'. Soils consisting primarily of peat are known as histosols. Peat forms in wetland conditions, where flooding or stagnant water obstructs the flow of oxygen from the atmosphere, slowing the rate of decomposition.

Bog Type of wetland that accumulates peat due to incomplete decomposition of plant matter

A bog or bogland is a wetland that accumulates peat, a deposit of dead plant material—often mosses, and in a majority of cases, sphagnum moss. It is one of the four main types of wetlands. Other names for bogs include mire, mosses, quagmire, and muskeg; alkaline mires are called fens. A baygall is another type of bog found in the forest of the Gulf Coast states in the USA. They are often covered in heath or heather shrubs rooted in the sphagnum moss and peat. The gradual accumulation of decayed plant material in a bog functions as a carbon sink.

Moss Division of non-vascular land plants

Mosses, the taxonomic division Bryophyta or the bryophytes, are small, non-vascular flowerless plants that typically form dense green clumps or mats, often in damp or shady locations. The individual plants are usually composed of simple leaves that are generally only one cell thick, attached to a stem that may be branched or unbranched and has only a limited role in conducting water and nutrients. Although some species have conducting tissues, these are generally poorly developed and structurally different from similar tissue found in vascular plants. Mosses do not have seeds and after fertilisation develop sporophytes with unbranched stalks topped with single capsules containing spores. They are typically 0.2–10 cm (0.1–3.9 in) tall, though some species are much larger. Dawsonia, the tallest moss in the world, can grow to 50 cm (20 in) in height.

<i>Picea mariana</i> Species of plant

Picea mariana, the black spruce, is a North American species of spruce tree in the pine family. It is widespread across Canada, found in all 10 provinces and all 3 Arctic territories. Its range extends into northern parts of the United States: in Alaska, the Great Lakes region, and the upper Northeast. It is a frequent part of the biome known as taiga or boreal forest.


Sphagnum is a genus of approximately 380 accepted species of mosses, commonly known as "peat moss" though they are different as peat moss has a more acidic pH level. Accumulations of Sphagnum can store water, since both living and dead plants can hold large quantities of water inside their cells; plants may hold 16 to 26 times as much water as their dry weight, depending on the species. The empty cells help retain water in drier conditions.

<i>Larix laricina</i>

Larix laricina, commonly known as the tamarack, hackmatack, eastern larch, black larch, red larch, or American larch, is a species of larch native to Canada, from eastern Yukon and Inuvik, Northwest Territories east to Newfoundland, and also south into the upper northeastern United States from Minnesota to Cranesville Swamp, West Virginia; there is also an isolated population in central Alaska. The word akemantak is an Algonquian name for the species and means "wood used for snowshoes".

Mer Bleue Bog

Mer Bleue Bog is a 33.43 km2 (12.91 sq mi) protected area east of Ottawa in Eastern Ontario, Canada. Its main feature is a sphagnum bog that is situated in an ancient channel of the Ottawa River and is a remarkable boreal-like ecosystem normally not found this far south. Stunted black spruce, tamarack, bog rosemary, blueberry, and cottongrass are some of the unusual species that have adapted to the acidic waters of the bog.

Burns Bog

Burns Bog is an ombrotrophic peat bog located in Delta, British Columbia, Canada. It is the largest raised peat bog and the largest undeveloped urban land mass on the West Coast of the Americas. Burns Bog was originally 4,000–4,900 hectares before development. Currently, only 3,500 hectares remain of the bog.

Fenns, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve

Fenn's, Whixall and Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve is a national nature reserve (NNR) which straddles the border between England and Wales, near Whixall and Ellesmere in Shropshire, England and Bettisfield in Wrexham County Borough, Wales. It comprises three peat bogs, Bettisfield Moss, Fenn's Moss and Whixall Moss. With Wem Moss and Cadney Moss, they are collectively a Site of Special Scientific Interest called The Fenn's, Whixall, Bettisfield, Wem & Cadney Moss Complex and form Britain's third-largest lowland raised bog, covering 2,388 acres (966 ha). The reserve is part of the Midland Meres and Mosses, an Important Plant Area which was declared a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1997. It is also a European Special Area of Conservation.

Corduroy road Roadbed made of logs perpendicular to the direction travel

A corduroy road or log road is a type of road or timber trackway made by placing logs, perpendicular to the direction of the road over a low or swampy area. The result is an improvement over impassable mud or dirt roads, yet rough in the best of conditions and a hazard to horses due to shifting loose logs.

Peat swamp forest Tropical moist forests where waterlogged soil prevents dead leaves and wood from fully decomposing

Peat swamp forests are tropical moist forests where waterlogged soil prevents dead leaves and wood from fully decomposing. Over time, this creates a thick layer of acidic peat. Large areas of these forests are being logged at high rates.

Wildsee (Kaltenbronn)

The Wildsee is a small lake within an area of bog between Bad Wildbad and Gernsbach, high in the Northern Black Forest mountain range in southwestern Germany. The lake is fed by rain water. It is part of the Kaltenbronn Nature Reserve.

Pinhook Bog

Pinhook Bog is a unique bog in Indiana that has been designated a National Natural Landmark. It is part of Indiana Dunes National Park, an area that many citizens, scientists, and politicians fought hard to preserve. Its sister bog, Volo Bog, is located nearby. The bog contains a large variety of plants, including insect eating plants, tamarack trees, stands of blueberry bushes, and floating mats of sphagnum moss. Pinhook Bog is about 580 acres (2.3 km2), a quarter of which is a floating mat of sphagnum peat moss. A "moat" separates the bog from the uplands.

<i>Aulacomnium palustre</i>

Aulacomnium palustre, the bog groove-moss or ribbed bog moss, is a moss that is nearly cosmopolitan in distribution. It occurs in North America, Hispaniola, Venezuela, Eurasia, and New Zealand. In North America, it occurs across southern arctic, subboreal, and boreal regions from Alaska and British Columbia to Greenland and Quebec. Documentation of ribbed bog moss's distribution in the contiguous United States is probably incomplete. It is reported sporadically south to Washington, Wyoming, Georgia, and Virginia.

Raised bog

Raised bogs, also called ombrotrophic bogs, are acidic, wet habitats that are poor in mineral salts and are home to flora and fauna that can cope with such extreme conditions. Raised bogs, unlike fens, are exclusively fed by precipitation (ombrotrophy) and from mineral salts introduced from the air. They thus represent a special type of bog, hydrologically, ecologically and in terms of their development history, in which the growth of peat mosses over centuries or millennia plays a decisive role. They also differ in character from blanket bogs which are much thinner and occur in wetter, cloudier climatic zones.


Paludification is the most common process by which peatlands in the boreal zone are formed.

Contributing approximately 167 Tg of methane to the atmosphere per year; wetlands are the largest natural source of atmospheric methane in the world, and therefore remain a major area of concern with respect to climate change. Wetlands are characterized by water-logged soils and distinctive communities of plant and animal species that have evolved and adapted to the constant presence of water. This high level of water saturation creates conditions conducive to methane production.

Mire Wetland terrain without forest cover, dominated by living, peat-forming plants

A mire, peatland or quagmire is a wetland type, dominated by living peat-forming plants. Mires arise because of incomplete decomposition of organic matter, usually litter from vegetation, due to water-logging and subsequent anoxia. All types of mires share the common characteristic of being saturated with water at least seasonally with actively forming peat, while having its own set of vegetation and organisms. Like coral reefs, mires are unusual landforms in that they derive mostly from biological rather than physical processes, and can take on characteristic shapes and surface patterning.


Pakihi or pākihi is a vegetation association unique to the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, characterised by flat boggy land with infertile, waterlogged soil on which only rushes, ferns, moss, and mānuka grow.


Line notes

  1. Cree Dictionary. "Maskek" . Retrieved 2009-04-15.
  2. C. Michael Hogan. 2008
  3. Government of Alberta: Geotechnical and Erosion Control Archived 2007-12-21 at the Wayback Machine