Latitudinal limits to the predicted increase of the peatland carbon sink with warming


The carbon sink potential of peatlands depends on the balance of carbon uptake by plants and microbial decomposition. The rates of both these processes will increase with warming but it remains unclear which will dominate the global peatland response. Here we examine the global relationship between peatland carbon accumulation rates during the last millennium and planetary-scale climate space. A positive relationship is found between carbon accumulation and cumulative photosynthetically active radiation during the growing season for mid- to high-latitude peatlands in both hemispheres. However, this relationship reverses at lower latitudes, suggesting that carbon accumulation is lower under the warmest climate regimes. Projections under Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP)2.6 and RCP8.5 scenarios indicate that the present-day global sink will increase slightly until around ad 2100 but decline thereafter. Peatlands will remain a carbon sink in the future, but their response to warming switches from a negative to a positive climate feedback (decreased carbon sink with warming) at the end of the twenty-first century.

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Fig. 1: Distribution of sampling sites in geographical space.
Fig. 2: Controls on peat accumulation rate.
Fig. 3: Spatial analysis of the overall carbon sink.
Fig. 4: Projected anomalies (future − historic) of annual carbon accumulation rates for four time periods.

Data availability

The datasets generated and analysed during the current study are available in the Supplementary Information and from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request.


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The work presented in this paper was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC standard grant number NE/I012915/1) to D.J.C., A.G.S., I.C.P., S.P. and P.F., supported by NERC Radiocarbon Allocation 1681.1012. The work and ideas in this paper have also been supported by PAGES funding, as part of C-PEAT. C.D.J. was supported by the Joint UK DECC/Defra Met Office Hadley Centre Climate Programme (GA01101). This research is also a contribution to the AXA Chair Programme in Biosphere and Climate Impacts and the Imperial College initiative on Grand Challenges in Ecosystems and the Environment. This research was also supported by a grant from the National Science Centre, Poland 2015/17/B/ST10/01656. We thank D. Vitt, J. Alm, I. E. Bauer, N. Rausch, V. Beaulieu-Audy, L. Tremblay, S. Pratte, A. Lamarre, D. Anderson and A. Ireland for contributing data to this compilation, S. Frolking for suggestions on different moisture indexes, and A. Whittle and F. Dearden for their work in the Exeter laboratories.

Author information




A.G.S. carried out analysis and interpretation of the data and wrote the first draft of the paper. D.J.C. supervised the project and contributed to experimental design, interpretation of results and the final draft. S.Br. carried out the statistical and spatial analysis of the data and contributed to the design of the final figures. S.M. was responsible for new radiocarbon analyses. Z.Y. provided the peatland map used in the modelling and contributed data and materials. C.J. provided climate and gross primary productivity data. L.O. carried out the age-depth models for all cores. All authors contributed either data or materials to be analysed in the Geography laboratories at the University of Exeter. All authors contributed to the preparation of the final paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Angela V. Gallego-Sala or Dan J. Charman.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1–3, Supplementary Figures 1–5 and Supplementary References.

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Gallego-Sala, A.V., Charman, D.J., Brewer, S. et al. Latitudinal limits to the predicted increase of the peatland carbon sink with warming. Nature Clim Change 8, 907–913 (2018).

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