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

Abstract

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.

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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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Contributions

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.

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Correspondence to Vincent Gauci.

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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)

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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). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11818

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