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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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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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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.
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). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-023-01657-w