Rapid expansion of northern peatlands and doubled estimate of carbon storage

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Northern peatlands are an integral part of the global carbon cycle—a strong sink of atmospheric carbon dioxide and source of methane. Increasing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere are thought to strongly impact these environments, and yet, peatlands are not routinely included in Earth system models. Here we present a quantification of the sink and stock of northern peat carbon from the last glacial period through the pre-industrial period. Additional data and new algorithms for reconstructing the history of peat carbon accumulation and the timing of peatland initiation increased the estimate of total northern peat carbon stocks from 545 Gt to 1,055 Gt of carbon. Further, the post-glacial increases in peatland initiation rate and carbon accumulation rate are more abrupt than previously reported. Peatlands have been a strong carbon sink throughout the Holocene, but the atmospheric partial pressure of carbon dioxide has been relatively stable over this period. While processes such as permafrost thaw and coral reef development probably contributed some additional carbon to the atmosphere, we suggest that deep ocean upwelling was the most important mechanism for balancing the peatland sink and maintaining the observed stability.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2: Time series of northern peatland carbon cycle changes.
Fig. 3: Comparison of peatland carbon accumulation and carbon release from the deep ocean.
Fig. 4: Comparison of estimates of total peat carbon in gigatons from two widely cited previous compilations and from this study.

Data availability

All data for this investigation is publicly available. Radiocarbon dates and attendant metadata from the Neotoma Paleoecology Database13 were accessed via its API using the ‘neotoma’ package for the R statistical computing environment (https://www.r-project.org/). Radiocarbon dates and peat carbon density data used in the Loisel et al. compilation14 is available to download at https://peatlands.lehigh.edu. The Treat et al. compilation15 is available from the Pangaea databases at https://doi.org/10.1594/PANGAEA.864101 and https://doi.org/10.1594/PANGAEA.863697. Radiocarbon measurements on basal peat without depth information were accessed from the supplementary information included with refs. 10,11,17.


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We acknowledge L. Heusser for her comments on the manuscript and R. Anderson and D. Sigman for their helpful discussions. This work is supported by the National Science Foundation grants (nos. ARC-1022979 to D.M.P. and DEB-1557078 to J.E.N.).

Author information

J.E.N. and D.M.P. compiled the data. J.E.N. performed statistical calculations. J.E.N. and D.M.P. wrote the text.

Correspondence to Jonathan E. Nichols.

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Peer review information Primary Handling Editor(s): Xujia Jiang.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1 and 2 and Tables 1 and 2.

Supplementary Data 1

Estimates of northern peatland area, carbon flux, total carbon sink and total carbon stock at 10-year resolution for 45,000 years.

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Nichols, J.E., Peteet, D.M. Rapid expansion of northern peatlands and doubled estimate of carbon storage. Nat. Geosci. 12, 917–921 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41561-019-0454-z

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