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Dual controls on carbon loss during drought in peatlands


Peatlands store one-third of global soil carbon1. Drought/drainage coupled with climate warming present the main threat to these stores1,2,3,4. Hence, understanding drought effects and inherent feedbacks related to peat decomposition has been a primary global challenge5,6. However, widely divergent results concerning drought in recent studies3,7,8,9,10,11 challenge the accepted paradigm that waterlogging and associated anoxia are the overarching controls locking up carbon stored in peat. Here, by linking field and microcosm experiments, we show how previously unrecognized mechanisms regulate the build-up of phenolics, which protects stored carbon directly by reducing phenol oxidase activity during short-term drought and, indirectly, through a shift from low-phenolic Sphagnum/herbs to high-phenolic shrubs after long-term moderate drought. We demonstrate that shrub expansion induced by drought/warming2,6,10,12,13 in boreal peatlands might be a long-term self-adaptive mechanism not only increasing carbon sequestration but also potentially protecting historic soil carbon. We therefore propose that the projected ‘positive feedback loop’ between carbon emission and drought in peatlands2,3,14,15 may not occur in the long term.

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Figure 1: Phenolic inhibitory effect on soil respiration versus annual average water level.
Figure 2: Heterotrophic CO2 emission versus soluble phenolics during the initial 60-day drought incubation in all peat monoliths from pocosin peatlands.
Figure 3: Total phenolics in leaves in pocosins (grey column) and in leaf litter in boreal peatlands (plain column) from different plant communities.
Figure 4: CO2 emissions from pocosin and boreal Sphagnum peat treated with pocosin peat or Sphagnum peat inocula during the drought phase.


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We would like to thank W. Willis and J. Bills for the field and laboratory measurement, R. Neighbarger for technical editing, N. Flanagan for providing water level data and T. Moore at McGill University for collection of Mer Bleue Sphagnum peat. Thanks also go to S. Ward and D. Kitts, USFWS, for helping with site selections and field assistance. Coastal Carolina/Southeastern Virginia Strategic Habitat Conservation Team, US Fish and Wildlife Service-Region 4, The Nature Conservancy of North Carolina, US DOE Office of Science, Terrestrial Ecosystem Sciences, under grant award DE-SC0012272 and the Duke University Wetland Center Endowment provided financial support.

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H.W. and C.J.R. designed the study, H.W. and M.H. conducted the research, H.W. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript with C.J.R., and all authors discussed results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Hongjun Wang or Curtis J. Richardson.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Wang, H., Richardson, C. & Ho, M. Dual controls on carbon loss during drought in peatlands. Nature Clim Change 5, 584–587 (2015).

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