Progress Article | Published:

Global vulnerability of peatlands to fire and carbon loss

Nature Geoscience volume 8, pages 1114 (2015) | Download Citation

Abstract

Globally, the amount of carbon stored in peats exceeds that stored in vegetation and is similar in size to the current atmospheric carbon pool. Fire is a threat to many peat-rich biomes and has the potential to disturb these carbon stocks. Peat fires are dominated by smouldering combustion, which is ignited more readily than flaming combustion and can persist in wet conditions. In undisturbed peatlands, most of the peat carbon stock typically is protected from smouldering, and resistance to fire has led to a build-up of peat carbon storage in boreal and tropical regions over long timescales. But drying as a result of climate change and human activity lowers the water table in peatlands and increases the frequency and extent of peat fires. The combustion of deep peat affects older soil carbon that has not been part of the active carbon cycle for centuries to millennia, and thus will dictate the importance of peat fire emissions to the carbon cycle and feedbacks to the climate.

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Acknowledgements

We thank A. D. McGuire and M. Flannigan for comments on previous versions of this manuscript. We also thank our numerous colleagues working in boreal, temperate, and tropical regions for their efforts and progress on the subject of peat fires. We acknowledge support from the NSERC and NASA to M.R.T., the EU and NERC to S.P., the European Research Council to G.R.v.d.W., EPSRC to G.R. and the NSF to A.W.

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Affiliations

  1. Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario N1G 1G2, Canada

    • Merritt R. Turetsky
  2. Department of Biological Sciences, Florida Atlantic University, Davie, Florida 33314, USA

    • Brian Benscoter
  3. Department of Geography, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK

    • Susan Page
  4. Department of Mechanical Engineering, Imperial College London, London SW7 2AZ, UK

    • Guillermo Rein
  5. Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences, VU University Amsterdam, De Boelelaan 1085, 1081HV, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

    • Guido R. van der Werf
  6. Division of Atmospheric Sciences, Desert Research Institute, 2215 Raggio Parkway, Reno, Nevada 89512, USA

    • Adam Watts

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Contributions

M.R.T. led this synthesis and all authors contributed to writing and ideas presented.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Merritt R. Turetsky.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2325