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Concept: Peat


Recent climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula is well documented [1-5], with warming, alongside increases in precipitation, wind strength, and melt season length [1, 6, 7], driving environmental change [8, 9]. However, meteorological records mostly began in the 1950s, and paleoenvironmental datasets that provide a longer-term context to recent climate change are limited in number and often from single sites [7] and/or discontinuous in time [10, 11]. Here we use moss bank cores from a 600-km transect from Green Island (65.3°S) to Elephant Island (61.1°S) as paleoclimate archives sensitive to regional temperature change, moderated by water availability and surface microclimate [12, 13]. Mosses grow slowly, but cold temperatures minimize decomposition, facilitating multi-proxy analysis of preserved peat [14]. Carbon isotope discrimination (Δ(13)C) in cellulose indicates the favorability of conditions for photosynthesis [15]. Testate amoebae are representative heterotrophs in peatlands [16-18], so their populations are an indicator of microbial productivity [14]. Moss growth and mass accumulation rates represent the balance between growth and decomposition [19]. Analyzing these proxies in five cores at three sites over 150 years reveals increased biological activity over the past ca. 50 years, in response to climate change. We identified significant changepoints in all sites and proxies, suggesting fundamental and widespread changes in the terrestrial biosphere. The regional sensitivity of moss growth to past temperature rises suggests that terrestrial ecosystems will alter rapidly under future warming, leading to major changes in the biology and landscape of this iconic region-an Antarctic greening to parallel well-established observations in the Arctic [20].

Concepts: Plant, Climate, Weather, Temperature, Antarctica, Cold, Peat, Moss


Permafrost in the Arctic is thawing, exposing large carbon and nitrogen stocks for decomposition. Gaseous carbon release from Arctic soils due to permafrost thawing is known to be substantial, but growing evidence suggests that Arctic soils may also be relevant sources of nitrous oxide (N2O). Here we show that N2O emissions from subarctic peatlands increase as the permafrost thaws. In our study, the highest postthaw emissions occurred from bare peat surfaces, a typical landform in permafrost peatlands, where permafrost thaw caused a fivefold increase in emissions (0.56 ± 0.11 vs. 2.81 ± 0.6 mg N2O m(-2) d(-1)). These emission rates match those from tropical forest soils, the world’s largest natural terrestrial N2O source. The presence of vegetation, known to limit N2O emissions in tundra, did decrease (by ∼90%) but did not prevent thaw-induced N2O release, whereas waterlogged conditions suppressed the emissions. We show that regions with high probability for N2O emissions cover one-fourth of the Arctic. Our results imply that the Arctic N2O budget will depend strongly on moisture changes, and that a gradual deepening of the active layer will create a strong noncarbon climate change feedback.

Concepts: Oxygen, Climate, Soil, Nitrogen, Nitrous oxide, Arctic, Greenhouse gas, Peat


Tropical peatlands now emit hundreds of megatons of carbon dioxide per year because of human disruption of the feedbacks that link peat accumulation and groundwater hydrology. However, no quantitative theory has existed for how patterns of carbon storage and release accompanying growth and subsidence of tropical peatlands are affected by climate and disturbance. Using comprehensive data from a pristine peatland in Brunei Darussalam, we show how rainfall and groundwater flow determine a shape parameter (the Laplacian of the peat surface elevation) that specifies, under a given rainfall regime, the ultimate, stable morphology, and hence carbon storage, of a tropical peatland within a network of rivers or canals. We find that peatlands reach their ultimate shape first at the edges of peat domes where they are bounded by rivers, so that the rate of carbon uptake accompanying their growth is proportional to the area of the still-growing dome interior. We use this model to study how tropical peatland carbon storage and fluxes are controlled by changes in climate, sea level, and drainage networks. We find that fluctuations in net precipitation on timescales from hours to years can reduce long-term peat accumulation. Our mathematical and numerical models can be used to predict long-term effects of changes in temporal rainfall patterns and drainage networks on tropical peatland geomorphology and carbon storage.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Water, Soil, Hydrology, Fossil fuel, Coal, Peat, Tropical peat


Peatlands contain one-third of soil carbon ©, mostly buried in deep, saturated anoxic zones (catotelm). The response of catotelm C to climate forcing is uncertain, because prior experiments have focused on surface warming. We show that deep peat heating of a 2 m-thick peat column results in an exponential increase in CH4 emissions. However, this response is due solely to surface processes and not degradation of catotelm peat. Incubations show that only the top 20-30 cm of peat from experimental plots have higher CH4 production rates at elevated temperatures. Radiocarbon analyses demonstrate that CH4 and CO2 are produced primarily from decomposition of surface-derived modern photosynthate, not catotelm C. There are no differences in microbial abundances, dissolved organic matter concentrations or degradative enzyme activities among treatments. These results suggest that although surface peat will respond to increasing temperature, the large reservoir of catotelm C is stable under current anoxic conditions.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Soil, Carbon, Methane, Fossil fuel, Coal, Peat, Decomposition


Tropical peatlands contain one of the largest pools of terrestrial organic carbon, amounting to about 89,000 teragrams (1 Tg is a billion kilograms). Approximately 65 per cent of this carbon store is in Indonesia, where extensive anthropogenic degradation in the form of deforestation, drainage and fire are converting it into a globally significant source of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Here we quantify the annual export of fluvial organic carbon from both intact peat swamp forest and peat swamp forest subject to past anthropogenic disturbance. We find that the total fluvial organic carbon flux from disturbed peat swamp forest is about 50 per cent larger than that from intact peat swamp forest. By carbon-14 dating of dissolved organic carbon (which makes up over 91 per cent of total organic carbon), we find that leaching of dissolved organic carbon from intact peat swamp forest is derived mainly from recent primary production (plant growth). In contrast, dissolved organic carbon from disturbed peat swamp forest consists mostly of much older (centuries to millennia) carbon from deep within the peat column. When we include the fluvial carbon loss term, which is often ignored, in the peatland carbon budget, we find that it increases the estimate of total carbon lost from the disturbed peatlands in our study by 22 per cent. We further estimate that since 1990 peatland disturbance has resulted in a 32 per cent increase in fluvial organic carbon flux from southeast Asia–an increase that is more than half of the entire annual fluvial organic carbon flux from all European peatlands. Our findings emphasize the need to quantify fluvial carbon losses in order to improve estimates of the impact of deforestation and drainage on tropical peatland carbon balances.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Soil, Carbon, Fossil fuel, Coal, Peat, Peat swamp forest, Tropical peat


In peatland ecosystems, plant communities mediate a globally significant carbon store. The effects of global environmental change on plant assemblages are expected to be a factor in determining how ecosystem functions such as carbon uptake will respond. Using vegetation data from 56 Sphagnum-dominated peat bogs across Europe, we show that in these ecosystems plant species aggregate into two major clusters that are each defined by shared response to environmental conditions. Across environmental gradients, we find significant taxonomic turnover in both clusters. However, functional identity and functional redundancy of the community as a whole remain unchanged. This strongly suggests that in peat bogs, species turnover across environmental gradients is restricted to functionally similar species. Our results demonstrate that plant taxonomic and functional turnover are decoupled, which may allow these peat bogs to maintain ecosystem functioning when subject to future environmental change.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Soil, Coal, Biome, Peat, Bog, Bord na Móna, Bog body


Peatlands are carbon-rich ecosystems that cover just three per cent of Earth’s land surface, but store one-third of soil carbon. Peat soils are formed by the build-up of partially decomposed organic matter under waterlogged anoxic conditions. Most peat is found in cool climatic regions where unimpeded decomposition is slower, but deposits are also found under some tropical swamp forests. Here we present field measurements from one of the world’s most extensive regions of swamp forest, the Cuvette Centrale depression in the central Congo Basin. We find extensive peat deposits beneath the swamp forest vegetation (peat defined as material with an organic matter content of at least 65 per cent to a depth of at least 0.3 metres). Radiocarbon dates indicate that peat began accumulating from about 10,600 years ago, coincident with the onset of more humid conditions in central Africa at the beginning of the Holocene. The peatlands occupy large interfluvial basins, and seem to be largely rain-fed and ombrotrophic-like (of low nutrient status) systems. Although the peat layer is relatively shallow (with a maximum depth of 5.9 metres and a median depth of 2.0 metres), by combining in situ and remotely sensed data, we estimate the area of peat to be approximately 145,500 square kilometres (95 per cent confidence interval of 131,900-156,400 square kilometres), making the Cuvette Centrale the most extensive peatland complex in the tropics. This area is more than five times the maximum possible area reported for the Congo Basin in a recent synthesis of pantropical peat extent. We estimate that the peatlands store approximately 30.6 petagrams (30.6 × 10(15) grams) of carbon belowground (95 per cent confidence interval of 6.3-46.8 petagrams of carbon)-a quantity that is similar to the above-ground carbon stocks of the tropical forests of the entire Congo Basin. Our result for the Cuvette Centrale increases the best estimate of global tropical peatland carbon stocks by 36 per cent, to 104.7 petagrams of carbon (minimum estimate of 69.6 petagrams of carbon; maximum estimate of 129.8 petagrams of carbon). This stored carbon is vulnerable to land-use change and any future reduction in precipitation.

Concepts: Tropics, Soil, Fossil fuel, Coal, Peat, Decomposition, Central Africa, Peat swamp forest


Freshwater peatlands are carbon accumulating ecosystems where primary production exceeds organic matter decomposition rates in the soil, and therefore perform an important sink function in global carbon cycling. Typical peatland plant and microbial communities are adapted to the waterlogged, often acidic and low nutrient conditions that characterise them. Peatlands in coastal locations receive inputs of oceanic base cations that shift conditions from the environmental optimum of these communities altering the carbon balance. Blanket bogs are one such type of peatlands occurring in hyperoceanic regions. Using a blanket bog to coastal marsh transect in Northwest Scotland we assess the impacts of salt intrusion on carbon accumulation rates. A threshold concentration of salt input, caused by inundation, exists corresponding to rapid acidophilic to halophilic plant community change and a carbon accumulation decline. For the first time, we map areas of blanket bog vulnerable to sea-level rise, estimating that this equates to ~7.4% of the total extent and a 0.22 Tg yr(-1) carbon sink. Globally, tropical peatlands face the proportionally greatest risk with ~61,000 km(2) (~16.6% of total) lying ≤5 m elevation. In total an estimated 20.2 ± 2.5 GtC is stored in peatlands ≤5 m above sea level, which are potentially vulnerable to inundation.

Concepts: Water, Soil, Marsh, Coal, Peat, Carbon cycle, Bog, Bord na Móna


Here we used organic composition and stable isotopic analysis to evaluate the effects of drainage and restoration at an ombrotrophic peatland, to assess whether rewetting of blanket bogs will reverse degradation. The organic composition of the peat and the isotopic fractionation between the solid (peat), liquid (pore water) and gas (soil gas) phases on actively accumulating, degrading and restored locations are compared. Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) analysis of the organic material has shown a high level of humification (low decomposition) in the active peat. Stable isotope analysis in the solid, liquid and gas phases has corresponded with this and indicated that the active location is enriched in (13)C in the solid and gas phases, (15)N in the solid phase, (18)O in the liquid and gas phases and D in the liquid phase, suggesting a closed system with limited isotopic fractionation and thus limited water movement and decomposition. The degrading location has a lower level of humification, and is depleted in (13)C in the solid phase due to ingression of vascular plants. The restored location has high humification and enrichment of (13)C and (15)N in the solid phase, and D in the liquid phase suggesting increased microbial activity. (13)C and (18)O in the gas phase and (18)O in the liquid phase are depleted, as a result of microbial mediated gas production and rewetting. FTIR analysis has also indicated a subsurface zone of increased decomposition between the acrotelm and catotelm in both the active and degrading peat. This is due to a stable water table and is not present within the restored location, which we attribute to water table fluctuation associated with rewetting. This zone of increased decomposition adds to the complexity of blanket bog peatlands and the assumption that all systems can be generalized under one conceptual model.

Concepts: Water, Soil, Liquid, Emulsion, Peat, Phases of matter, Bog, Isotope analysis


Fire has been used for centuries to generate and manage some of the UK’s cultural landscapes. Despite its complex role in the ecology of UK peatlands and moorlands, there has been a trend of simplifying the narrative around burning to present it as an only ecologically damaging practice. That fire modifies peatland characteristics at a range of scales is clearly understood. Whether these changes are perceived as positive or negative depends upon how trade-offs are made between ecosystem services and the spatial and temporal scales of concern. Here we explore the complex interactions and trade-offs in peatland fire management, evaluating the benefits and costs of managed fire as they are currently understood. We highlight the need for (i) distinguishing between the impacts of fires occurring with differing severity and frequency, and (ii) improved characterization of ecosystem health that incorporates the response and recovery of peatlands to fire. We also explore how recent research has been contextualized within both scientific publications and the wider media and how this can influence non-specialist perceptions. We emphasize the need for an informed, unbiased debate on fire as an ecological management tool that is separated from other aspects of moorland management and from political and economic opinions.This article is part of the themed issue ‘The interaction of fire and mankind’.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Ecology, Ecosystem, Perception, Ecological economics, Ecosystem services, Peat, Moorland