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Wildfire and degradation accelerate northern peatland carbon release


The northern peatland carbon sink plays a vital role in climate regulation; however, the future of the carbon sink is uncertain, in part, due to the changing interactions of peatlands and wildfire. Here, we use empirical datasets from natural, degraded and restored peatlands in non-permafrost boreal and temperate regions to model net ecosystem exchange and methane fluxes, integrating peatland degradation status, wildfire combustion and post-fire dynamics. We find that wildfire processes reduced carbon uptake in pristine peatlands by 35% and further enhanced emissions from degraded peatlands by 10%. The current small net sink is vulnerable to the interactions of peatland degraded area, burn rate and peat burn severity. Climate change impacts accelerated carbon losses, where increased burn severity and burn rate reduced the carbon sink by 38% and 65%, respectively, by 2100. However, our study demonstrates the potential for active peatland restoration to buffer these impacts.

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Fig. 1: Distribution of NEE + CH4 fluxes.
Fig. 2: The interactive effect of fire regime changes and degraded peatland area on NEE + CH4 flux (GtC yr−1).
Fig. 3: Cumulative NEE + CH4 flux (GtC) for boreal and temperate non-permafrost peatlands in 2050 and 2100.

Data availability

Synthesized data are uploaded to a certified repository55 and are open access.

Code availability

Model simulations code is uploaded to a certified repository55 and is open access.


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The research published in this paper is part of the Boreal Water Futures project, which is funded by the Global Water Futures programme of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund. Funding was also provided by the Canada Wildfire NSERC Strategic Network. R.A. acknowledges funding by the Leverhulme Trust (RL2019-002) and by NERC (NE/T006528/1) and G.G. acknowledges funding from waterLANDS, a European Union Horizon Green Deal project under grant agreement no. 101036484.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



S.W., R.A., S.D. and J.M.W. were responsible for conceptualization. J.M.W. was responsible for funding acquisition and supervision. S.W., P.M., S.D. and G.G. undertook data curation. S.W. and P.M. conducted the formal analysis. S.W., R.A., P.M. and J.M.W. developed the methodology. S.W. and R.A. were responsible for visualization. S.W. and R.A. wrote the original draft and all other authors reviewed and edited the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to S. L. Wilkinson.

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Nature Climate Change thanks Nancy French and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Conceptual diagram of the modelling design.

Conceptual diagram of the modelling design developed to incorporate peat carbon loss from wildfire (peat burn severity) and post-fire carbon dynamics (recovery rate and recovered NEE) in peatland GHG emissions. Where y1 represents the NEE + CH4 of a burned peatland, x1 represents the time lag between wildfire and the initiation of post-fire recovery, x2 represents the time at which ‘recovered’ NEE is achieved and y2 represents the magnitude of the recovered carbon sink. The variability in peat burn severity, time lag, recovery rate, and recovered NEE are depicted by the blue dashed lines and yellow arrows.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Relationship between fire return interval and histosol cover per ecoregion.

Fire return interval (100/(burn rate)) per ecoregion (as calculated from FIRED33), and mean ecoregion histosol cover3. The Southern Hudson Bay taiga ecoregion is highlighted as the region with the highest histosol cover (~43%).

Extended Data Table 1 Simulation input parameters derived from data synthesis
Extended Data Table 2 Regional burn rate data

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 2–4 and Figs. 1–4.

Supplementary Table 1

Table of calculated burn rate for each ecoregion that contains histosols.

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Wilkinson, S.L., Andersen, R., Moore, P.A. et al. Wildfire and degradation accelerate northern peatland carbon release. Nat. Clim. Chang. 13, 456–461 (2023).

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