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

Nature Climate Changevolume 8pages907913 (2018) | Download Citation


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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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


  1. Geography Department, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK

    • Angela V. Gallego-Sala
    • , Dan J. Charman
    • , Matthew J. Amesbury
    • , Donna Carless
    • , Elizabeth Cressey
    • , Lisa Orme
    • , Thomas P. Roland
    • , Nicole K. Sanderson
    • , Natascha Steinberg
    • , Joanna Uglow
    •  & Joana Zaragoza-Castells
  2. Department of Geography, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, USA

    • Simon Brewer
  3. School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK

    • Susan E. Page
  4. Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College London, Silwood Park, Ascot, UK

    • I. Colin Prentice
  5. College of Engineering, Maths and Physics, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK

    • Pierre Friedlingstein
  6. NERC Radiocarbon Facility, East Kilbride, UK

    • Steve Moreton
  7. Department of Geography, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, HI, USA

    • David W. Beilman
    •  & Charly Massa
  8. Department of Geology, Lund University, Lund, Sweden

    • Svante Björck
    • , Rixt de Jong
    •  & Ulla Kokfelt
  9. Institute for Monitoring Climatic and Ecological Systems, Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Science (IMCES SB RAS), Tomsk, Russia

    • Tatiana Blyakharchuk
  10. Department of Earth and Environmental Science, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, USA

    • Christopher Bochicchio
    • , Robert K. Booth
    •  & Zicheng Yu
  11. Department of Geography and Earth Science, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, La Crosse, WI, USA

    • Joan Bunbury
  12. Environmental Studies Program and Earth and Oceanographic Science Department, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME, USA

    • Philip Camill
  13. School of Forest Research and Environmental Sciences, Michigan Technical University, Houghton, MI, USA

    • Rodney A. Chimner
    •  & John Hribjlan
  14. Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences, DRI, Las Vegas, NV, USA

    • Michael Clifford
  15. Environment Department, University of York, York, UK

    • Colin Courtney-Mustaphi
    • , Esther Githumbi
    •  & Robert Marchant
  16. Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala Universitet, Uppsala, Sweden

    • Colin Courtney-Mustaphi
  17. EcoLab, Université de Toulouse, CNRS, INPT, UPS, Castanet Tolosan, France

    • François De Vleeschouwer
    •  & Gael Le Roux
  18. Department of Biogeography and Palaeoecology, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland

    • Barbara Fialkiewicz-Koziel
    • , Mariusz Lamentowicz
    •  & Katarzyna Marcisz
  19. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

    • Sarah A. Finkelstein
  20. GEOTOP, Université du Québec à Montréal, Montréal, Quebec, Canada

    • Michelle Garneau
    • , Gabriel Magnan
    •  & Simon van Bellen
  21. Institute of Environment and Sustainability, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA

    • James Holmquist
    •  & Glen M. MacDonald
  22. Geography and Environment, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK

    • Paul D. M. Hughes
  23. MET Office, Hadley Centre, Exeter, UK

    • Chris Jones
  24. USGS, Reston, Virginia, VA, USA

    • Miriam C. Jones
  25. Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences, University of Tartu, Tartu, Estonia

    • Edgar Karofeld
  26. Department of Geological Sciences, University of Alaska, Anchorage, Anchorage, AK, USA

    • Eric S. Klein
  27. ECRU, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

    • Atte Korhola
    • , Paul Mathijssen
    •  & Minna Väliranta
  28. Department of Biology and Centre for Forest Biology, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

    • Terri Lacourse
  29. Laboratory of Wetland Ecology and Monitoring, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland

    • Mariusz Lamentowicz
    •  & Katarzyna Marcisz
  30. Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK

    • David Large
  31. Département de Géographie et Centre d’Études Nordiques, Université Laval, Québec City, Quebec, Canada

    • Martin Lavoie
  32. Department of Geography, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA

    • Julie Loisel
  33. School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

    • Helen Mackay
  34. Geological Survey of Finland, Espoo, Finland

    • Markku Makila
  35. Institute of Plant Sciences and Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland

    • Katarzyna Marcisz
  36. Departamento de Edafoloxía e Química Agrícola, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela, Spain

    • Antonio Martínez Cortizas
    •  & Noemí Silva-Sánchez
  37. Geosciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK

    • Dmitri Mauquoy
    •  & Timothy Mighall
  38. School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland

    • Fraser J. G. Mitchell
  39. School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

    • Patrick Moss
  40. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Palisades, NY, USA

    • Jonathan Nichols
  41. Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland

    • Pirita O. Oksanen
  42. Department of Geology and Geophysics, Norwegian Polar Institute, Tromsø, Norway

    • Lisa Orme
  43. Science and Research Branch, Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada

    • Maara S. Packalen
  44. Champlain College, Dublin, Ireland

    • Stephen Robinson
  45. Department of Physical Geography, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

    • A. Britta K. Sannel
  46. School of Geography, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK

    • Graeme T. Swindles
    •  & T. Edward Turner
  47. The Forestry Commission, Galloway Forest District, Newton Stewart, UK

    • T. Edward Turner
  48. BIAX Consult, Zaandam, the Netherlands

    • Marjolein van der Linden
  49. IBED, Universiteit van Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

    • Bas van Geel
  50. Northeast Institute of Geography and Agroecology, Chinese Academy of Science, Changchun, China

    • Guoping Wang
  51. Key Laboratory of Wetland Ecology, Institute for Mire and Peat Research, Northeast Normal University, Changchun, China

    • Zicheng Yu
  52. Institute of Geographical Science and Natural Resources, Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing, China

    • Yan Zhao


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

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

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

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

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