Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Deep instability of deforested tropical peatlands revealed by fluvial organic carbon fluxes


Tropical peatlands contain one of the largest pools of terrestrial organic carbon, amounting to about 89,000 teragrams1 (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 dioxide1,2,3. 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.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Total and seasonal fluvial organic carbon losses from intact (PSF1) and disturbed (PSF2 and PSF3) catchments.
Figure 2: Carbon balance and DOC age attribution of intact and disturbed PSF.


  1. Page, S. E., Rieley, J. O. & Banks, C. J. Global and regional importance of the tropical peatland carbon pool. Glob. Change Biol. 17, 798–818 (2011)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Page, S. E. et al. The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature 420, 61–65 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Hooijer, A. et al. Current and future CO2 emissions from drained peatlands in Southeast Asia. Biogeosciences 7, 1505–1514 (2010)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Gorham, E. Northern peatlands: role in the carbon cycle and probable responses to climatic warming. Ecol. Appl. 1, 182–195 (1991)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. McDowell, W. H. & Likens, G. E. Origin, composition and flux of dissolved organic carbon in the Hubbard Brook valley. Ecol. Monogr. 58, 177–195 (1988)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Michalzik, B., Kalbitz, K., Park, J. H., Solinger, S. & Matzner, E. Fluxes and concentrations of dissolved organic carbon and nitrogen—a synthesis for temperate forests. Biogeochemistry 52, 173–205 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Mulholland, P. J. & Kuenzler, P. J. Organic carbon export from upland and forested wetland watersheds. Limnol. Oceanogr. 24, 960–966 (1979)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Page, S. E. et al. Ecological restoration of tropical peatlands in Southeast Asia. Ecosystems 12, 888–905 (2009)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Hoscilo, A., Page, S. E., Tansey, K. J. & Rieley, J. O. Effect of repeated fires on land-cover change on peatland in southern Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, from 1973 to 2005. Int. J. Wildland Fire 20, 578–588 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Limpens, J. et al. Peatlands and the carbon cycle: from local processes to global implications—a synthesis. Biogeosciences 5, 1475–1491 (2008)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Schiff, S. L. et al. Export of DOC from forested catchments on the Precambrian Shield of central Ontario: Clues from 13C and 14C. Biogeochemistry 36, 43–65 (1997)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Benner, R., Benitez-Nelson, B., Kaiser, K. & Amon, R. M. W. Export of young terrigenous dissolved organic carbon from rivers to the Arctic Ocean. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L05305 (2004)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Palmer, S. M. et al. Sources of organic and inorganic carbon in a headwater stream: evidence from carbon isotope studies. Biogeochemistry 52, 321–338 (2001)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Evans, C. D. et al. Evidence against recent climate-induced destabilisation of soil carbon from 14C analysis of riverine dissolved organic matter. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L07407 (2007)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Raymond, P. A. et al. Flux and age of dissolved organic carbon exported to the Arctic Ocean: a carbon isotopic study of the five largest arctic rivers. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 21, GB4011 (2007)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  16. Miettinen, J. & Liew, S. C. Degradation and development of peatlands in peninsular Malaysia and in the islands of Sumatra and Borneo since 1990. Land Degrad. Dev. 21, 285–296 (2010)

    Google Scholar 

  17. Page, S. E. et al. A record of late Pleistocene and Holocene carbon accumulation and climate change from an equatorial peat bog (Kalimantan, Indonesia): implications for past, present and future carbon dynamics. J. Quat. Sci. 19, 625–635 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Hirano, T. et al. Carbon dioxide balance of a tropical peat swamp forest in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Glob. Change Biol. 13, 412–425 (2007)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Moore, S., Gauci, V., Evans, C. D. & Page, S. E. Fluvial organic carbon losses from a Bornean blackwater river. Biogeosciences 8, 901–909 (2011)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Montanarella, L., Jones, R. J. A. & Hiederer, R. The distribution of peatland in Europe. Mires Peat 1, 1–10 (2006)

    Google Scholar 

  21. Billett, M. F. et al. Carbon balance of UK peatlands: current state of knowledge and future research challenges. Clim. Res. 45, 13–29 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Nilsson, M. et al. Contemporary carbon accumulation in a boreal oligotrophic minerogenic mire - a significant sink after accounting for all C-fluxes. Glob. Change Biol. 14, 2317–2332 (2008)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Battin, T. J. et al. The boundless carbon cycle. Nature Geosci. 2, 598–600 (2009)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Cole, J. J. et al. Plumbing the global carbon cycle: Integrating inland waters into the terrestrial carbon budget. Ecosystems 10, 172–185 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Mayorga, E. et al. Young organic matter as a source of carbon dioxide outgassing from Amazonian rivers. Nature 436, 538–541 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Caraco, N., Bauer, J. E., Cole, J. J., Petsch, S. & Raymond, P. Millennial-aged organic carbon subsidies to a modern river food web. Ecology 91, 2385–2393 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Good Practice Guidance for Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) (eds Penman, J. et al.) Sections 3.2, 3.5 (IPCC National Greenhouse Gas Inventories Programme, Technical Support Unit, 2003);

  28. Murdiyarso, D., Hergoualc’h, K. & Verchot, L. V. Opportunities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in tropical peatlands. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. 107, 19655–19660 (2010)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Boehm, H.-D. V. & Siegert, F. Ecological impact of the one million hectare rice project in central Kalimantan, Indonesia using remote sensing and GIS. 22nd Asian Conf. Remote Sensing 1, 439–444, EME-08 (CRISP, 2001);

  30. Page, S. E., Rieley, J. O., Shotyk, Ø. W. & Weiss, D. Interdependence of peat and vegetation in a tropical peat swamp forest. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 35, 1885–1897 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Takahashi, H., Usup, A., Hayasaka, H. & Limin, S. H. in Proceedings of the International Symposium on Land Management and Biodiversity in Southeast Asia, Bali, Indonesia, 17–20 September 2002 (eds Osaki, M. et al.) 311–314 (Hokkaido University and Indonesian Institute of Sciences, 2003)

    Google Scholar 

  32. Hope, D., Billett, M. F. & Cresser, M. S. A review of the export of carbon in river water: fluxes and processes. Environ. Pollut. 84, 301–324 (1994)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Vernimmen, R. R. E., Hooijer, A., Mamenun, E. A. & van Dijk, A. I. J. M. Evaluation and bias correction of satellite rainfall data for drought monitoring in Indonesia. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 16, 133–146 (2012)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Clark, D. B. et al. The Joint UK Land Environment Simulator (JULES), model description—Part 2: Carbon fluxes and vegetation dynamics. Geosci. Model Dev. 4, 701–722 (2011)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Best, M. J. et al. The Joint UK Land Environment Simulator (JULES), model description—Part 1: Energy and water fluxes. Geosci. Model Dev. 4, 677–699 (2011)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  36. FAO/IIASA/ISRIC/ISS-CAS/JRC Harmonized World Soil Database (version 1.1) (Food and Agriculture Organisation and International Iinstitute for Applied Systems Analysis, 2009);

  37. Bruijnzeel, L. A. Hydrology of Moist Tropical Forests and Effects of Conversion: a State of Knowledge Review (UNESCO International Hydrological Programme, 1990);

  38. Schellekens, J., Bruijnzeel, L. A., Scatena, F. N., Bink, N. J. & Holwerda, F. Evaporation from a tropical rain forest, Luquillo Experimental Forest, eastern Puerto Rico. Wat. Resour. Res. 36, 2183–2196 (2000)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Kume, T. et al. Ten-year evapotranspiration estimates in a Bornean tropical rainforest. Agric. For. Meteorol. 151, 1183–1192 (2011)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Komatsu, H., Cho, J., Matsumoto, K. & Otsuki, K. Simple modeling of the global variation in annual forest evapotranspiration. J. Hydrol. 420/421, 380–390 (2012)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Weedon, G. P. et al. Creation of the WATCH Forcing Data and its use to assess global and regional reference crop evaporation over land during the twentieth century. J. Hydrometeorol. 12, 823–848 (2011)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Hedin, L. O. et al. Patterns of nutrient loss from unpolluted, old-growth temperate forests—evaluation of biogeochemical theory. Ecology 76, 493–509 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


S.M. was supported by a NERC PhD studentship (NE/F008813/1). Radiocarbon analyses were supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Open University (CEPSAR) via the NERC Radiocarbon Facility (Environment), Allocations 1323.1008 and 15.91. A.J.W. was supported by the Joint DECC/Defra Met Office Hadley Centre Programme (GA01101). A. Hoscilo provided land-cover change estimates. We thank I. Mohammed, K. Kusin and L. Graham for field assistance. The Malaysian work was supported by the Royal Society and British Council and we thank P. Kuppan, N. Willis and F. Md. Yussof for field support.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



V.G., S.E.P. and C.D.E. conceived and led the research conducted in Kalimantan. S.M., V.G., S.E.P. and C.D.E. designed the study and S.M. performed all the Kalimantan field data collection and analysis. C.D.E. and M.H.G. coordinated, analysed and interpreted the radiocarbon component of the work. S.M., V.G. and S.E.P. performed the scaling-up calculations. C.F. conceived and led the Malaysian study, T.G.J. performed the field data collection and analysis, A.H. provided hydrological data and interpreted land surface information to allow catchment definition. A.J.W. provided modelled estimates of evapotranspiration. S.H.L. provided expertise on the history of land-cover change and field site selection. S.M., V.G., S.E.P. and C.D.E. led the writing of the paper. All authors discussed results and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Vincent Gauci.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Text, Supplementary Figures 1-4 and Supplementary References. Formatting of Equation S1 was corrected on 21 February 2013. (PDF 1475 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Moore, S., Evans, C., Page, S. et al. Deep instability of deforested tropical peatlands revealed by fluvial organic carbon fluxes. Nature 493, 660–663 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing