Woody litter protects peat carbon stocks during drought


Northern peatlands store ~30% of the world’s soil carbon. This carbon sequestration is due to slow decomposition, as illustrated by ancient wooden artefacts and ‘bog bodies’ preserved over millennia. Such artefacts suggest that carbon could be captured externally and stored long term in peat. However, whether such carbon would remain stable following lowered water tables is not known. Here, we show that adding woody litter results in preservation of the exogenous carbon, as well as protection of soil carbon within the host ecosystem from severe drought, as a result of leached polyphenolics. These compounds not only inhibit microbial extracellular and intracellular metabolism but also deprive microbial growth of iron and substrates such as carbon and nitrogen. Our results suggest that this technique harnesses natural ecosystem resilience mechanisms and may have implications for new carbon-farming approaches.

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Fig. 1: Effect of changes in redox potential on GHG fluxes from ombrotrophic peat.
Fig. 2: Effect of peat type on wood preservation and polyphenolic accumulation.
Fig. 3: Effect of oak addition on GHG fluxes across peat types.
Fig. 4: Preservation of pre-aged oak in peat and its effect on GHG fluxes.
Fig. 5: Oak additions reduce the impacts of drought and drainage on peatland carbon losses.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on request. Source data for Figs. 1–5 are included with the paper.

Code availability

The code used to generate Figs. 1–5 can be accessed at https://figshare.com/.


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We thank the NERC, the Leverhulme Trust and the Royal Society for funding this research. We also thank S. Hughes of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology for providing data and field assistance.

Author information

N.F and C.F. designed the study; N.F. conducted the research; N.F. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript with C.F.

Correspondence to Nathalie Fenner.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Tim Moore, Hongjun Wang and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–3, Texts 1–4 and Tables 1–4.

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Source Data Fig. 1

Numerical data used to generate graphs in Fig. 1a,b.

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Numerical data used to generate graphs in Fig. 2a,b.

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Numerical data used to generate graphs in Fig. 3a–c.

Source Data Fig. 4

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Source Data Fig. 5

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Fenner, N., Freeman, C. Woody litter protects peat carbon stocks during drought. Nat. Clim. Chang. (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0727-y

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