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Carbon respiration from subsurface peat accelerated by climate warming in the subarctic


Among the largest uncertainties in current projections of future climate is the feedback between the terrestrial carbon cycle and climate1. Northern peatlands contain one-third of the world’s soil organic carbon, equivalent to more than half the amount of carbon in the atmosphere2. Climate-warming-induced acceleration of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions through enhanced respiration of thick peat deposits, centuries to millennia old, may form a strong positive carbon cycle–climate feedback. The long-term temperature sensitivity of carbon in peatlands, especially at depth, remains uncertain, however, because of the short duration or correlative nature of field studies3,4,5 and the disturbance associated with respiration measurements below the surface in situ or during laboratory incubations6,7. Here we combine non-disturbing in situ measurements of CO2 respiration rates and isotopic (13C) composition of respired CO2 in two whole-ecosystem climate-manipulation experiments in a subarctic peatland. We show that approximately 1 °C warming accelerated total ecosystem respiration rates on average by 60% in spring and by 52% in summer and that this effect was sustained for at least eight years. While warming stimulated both short-term (plant-related) and longer-term (peat soil-related) carbon respiration processes, we find that at least 69% of the increase in respiration rate originated from carbon in peat towards the bottom (25–50 cm) of the active layer above the permafrost. Climate warming therefore accelerates respiration of the extensive, subsurface carbon reservoirs in peatlands to a much larger extent than was previously thought6,7. Assuming that our data from a single site are indicative of the direct response to warming of northern peatland soils on a global scale, we estimate that climate warming of about 1 °C over the next few decades could induce a global increase in heterotrophic respiration of 38–100 megatonnes of C per year. Our findings suggest a large, long-lasting, positive feedback of carbon stored in northern peatlands to the global climate system.

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Figure 1: Ecosystem respiration rates in a subarctic bog subjected to long-term experimental climate change or ambient conditions.
Figure 2: Ecosystem respiration rates and their heterotrophic and plant-related components in a subarctic bog subjected to experimental warming or ambient conditions.
Figure 3: Isotopic signatures of carbon respired as CO 2 in a subarctic bog subjected to experimental climate change or ambient conditions.


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We thank J. H. C. Cornelissen, J. C. Douma, F. Keuper, U. Kokfelt and M. Sonesson for discussions, J. R. van Hal, M. van Leeuwen, J. C. Ordonez and the staff of the Abisko Naturvetenskapliga Station for technical assistance. We also thank E. van Munster for graphical support and T. R. Christensen and N. T. Roulet for comments on the manuscript. This work is funded partially by USF grant 98.24, ALW-NWO grant 854.00.019 and EU-ATANS grant Fp6 506004 to R.A. The County Administrative Board at Luleå gave permission to perform the field experiments in the Abisko National Park. This paper contributes to the Terrestrial Ecosystems Responses to Atmospheric and Climate Change (TERACC) network of GCTE-IGBP.

Author Contributions R.A., T.V.C. and E.D. designed the long-term climate-change experiment. E.D. designed the companion experiment. E.D., R.A. and R.S.P.v.L. developed the carbon isotope methods. E.D., S.T., R.S.P.v.L., E.S. and M.J.v.d.W. performed the respiration and environmental measurements in the field. E.D. and R.S.P.v.L. collected and analysed the stable isotope samples for the field and laboratory experiments. E.D., E.S., M.J.v.d.W. and S.T. performed the data analyses. E.D. wrote the manuscript, to which all authors contributed with discussion and text.

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Correspondence to Ellen Dorrepaal.

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Dorrepaal, E., Toet, S., van Logtestijn, R. et al. Carbon respiration from subsurface peat accelerated by climate warming in the subarctic. Nature 460, 616–619 (2009).

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