Experimental evidence for sustained carbon sequestration in fire-managed, peat moorlands

Abstract

Peat moorlands are important habitats in the boreal region, where they store approximately 30% of the global soil carbon (C). Prescribed burning on peat is a very contentious management strategy, widely linked with loss of carbon. Here, we quantify the effects of prescribed burning for lightly managed boreal moorlands and show that the impacts on peat and C accumulation rates are not as bad as is widely thought. We used stratigraphical techniques within a unique replicated ecological experiment with known burn frequencies to quantify peat and C accumulation rates (0, 1, 3 and 6 managed burns since around 1923). Accumulation rates were typical of moorlands elsewhere, and were reduced significantly only in the 6-burn treatment. However, impacts intensified gradually with burn frequency; each additional burn reduced the accumulation rates by 4.9 g m−2 yr−1 (peat) and 1.9 g C cm−2 yr−1, but did not prevent accumulation. Species diversity and the abundance of peat-forming species also increased with burn frequency. Our data challenge widely held perceptions that a move to 0 burning is essential for peat growth, and show that appropriate prescribed burning can both mitigate wildfire risk in a warmer world and produce relatively fast peat growth and sustained C sequestration.

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Fig. 1: Effects of differing prescribed fire frequencies on peat and C accumulation rates.
Fig. 2: Generalized linear models (GLMs) of modelled responses of differing prescribed fire frequencies on community diversity and abundance of major species.
Fig. 3: Summarized impacts of the four fire return intervals on key ecosystem properties.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available in: DataCat: the University of Liverpool Research Data Catalogue with the identifier https://doi.org/10.17638/datacat.liverpool.ac.uk/531 for peat and C accumulation rates65; and the NERC Environmental Information Data Centre with the identifier https://doi.org/10.5285/0b931b16-796e-4ce4-8c64-d112f09293f7 for species change66.

Change history

  • 10 January 2019

    In the version of this Article originally published, the authors neglected to include information on Competing Interests; this has now been included in all versions of the Article.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Nature Conservancy for having the foresight to initiate the Hard Hill Burning Experiment and the UK Environmental Change Network for its continuation. This work was funded by the Heather Trust and NERC/DEFRA (FIREMAN BioDiversa project (NE/G002096/1). S. Yee provided graphical support.

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Contributions

R.H.M. and R.C.C. planned and carried out the field sampling with R.J.R, E.-L.M., R.L. and K.H.; R.C.C. led the geochemistry/stratigraphy with E.-L.M. and R.L.; P.G.A. and G.T.P. were responsible for the radiometric dating. The vegetation survey and analyses were planned and performed by J.G.A., K.A.A., H.L., G.M., R.J.R., J.O’R. and V.S. The manuscript was produced by R.H.M. and R.C.C., with all authors contributing to the final version.

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Correspondence to R. H. Marrs.

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Competing interests

Financial competing interests: The work reported in this paper was 95% funded by a Biodiversa grant (ERA-net project within the European Union’s 6th Framework Programme for Research — 2008 Joint call), which in the UK was funded jointly by DEFRA/NERC (NE/G002096/1). DEFRA is a government ministry whose policy is not to burn on peat. R.H.M. was a co-Investigator. The other 5% (about £2,000) was provided by the Heather Trust, which is a charity that’s dedicated to moorland and upland environment management.

Non-financial competing interests: R.H.M. is a member of the Heather Trust and currently their honorary President; in this role he is specifically barred from interfering in any aspect of their work and does not have voting rights. The Trust aims to provide good moorland management and foster peat conservation in a range of different ways, of which burning is one approach. The Heather Trust does not seek to influence the author’s views when work they support is published. R.H.M. was an expert panel member for DEFRA in 2004 and 2005, when the regulations for burning on peatland were re-written. R.H.M. was an expert witness in a public inquiry on Heather Burning in 2012, supporting a private client. R.H.M. was an author of two of the reports by the IUCN UK Peatland Programme’s Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands. R.H.M. is a member of the Game Conservancy & Wildlife Trust’s Uplands Research Committee; this is advisory only and is unpaid. R.H.M. is not a member of the GWCT, is not involved with game shooting in any way, has never shot game of any description and has never attended any game-shooting event.

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Marrs, R.H., Marsland, E., Lingard, R. et al. Experimental evidence for sustained carbon sequestration in fire-managed, peat moorlands. Nature Geosci 12, 108–112 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0266-6

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