Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Rapid expansion of northern peatlands and doubled estimate of carbon storage


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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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 ( Radiocarbon dates and peat carbon density data used in the Loisel et al. compilation14 is available to download at The Treat et al. compilation15 is available from the Pangaea databases at and Radiocarbon measurements on basal peat without depth information were accessed from the supplementary information included with refs. 10,11,17.


  1. 1.

    Gorham, E. Northern Peatlands: Role in the carbon cycle and probable responses to climatic warming. Ecol. Appl. 1, 182–195 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Charman, D. J. et al. Climate-related changes in peatland carbon accumulation during the last millennium. Biogeosciences 10, 929–944 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Bragazza, L. et al. Persistent high temperature and low precipitation reduce peat carbon accumulation. Glob. Change Biol. 22, 4114–4123 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Gallego-Sala, A. V. et al. Latitudinal limits to the predicted increase of the peatland carbon sink with warming. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 907–913 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Frolking, S., Roulet, N. & Lawrence, D. in Carbon Cycling in Northern Peatlands (eds Baird, A. J. et al.) 19–35 (American Geophysical Union, 2009).

  6. 6.

    Waddington, J. M. et al. Hydrological feedbacks in northern peatlands. Ecohydrology 8, 113–127 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Yu, Z., Loisel, J., Brosseau, D. P., Beilman, D. W. & Hunt, S. J. Global peatland dynamics since the Last Glacial Maximum. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L13402 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Yu, Z. Northern peatland carbon stocks and dynamics: a review. Biogeosciences 9, 4071–4085 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Turetsky, M. R. et al. Global vulnerability of peatlands to fire and carbon loss. Nat. Geosci. 8, 11–14 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Macdonald, G. M. et al. Rapid early development of circumarctic peatlands and atmospheric CH4 and CO2 variations. Science 314, 285–288 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Korhola, A. et al. The importance of northern peatland expansion to the late-Holocene rise of atmospheric methane. Quat. Sci. Rev. 29, 611–617 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Loisel, J. et al. Insights and issues with estimating northern peatland carbon stocks and fluxes since the Last Glacial Maximum. Earth Sci. Rev. 165, 59–80 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Williams, J. W. et al. The Neotoma Paleoecology Database, a multiproxy, international, community-curated data resource. Quat. Res. 89, 156–177 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Loisel, J. et al. A database and synthesis of northern peatland soil properties and Holocene carbon and nitrogen accumulation. Holocene 24, 1028–1042 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Treat, C. C. et al. Effects of permafrost aggradation on peat properties as determined from a pan‐Arctic synthesis of plant macrofossils. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 121, 78–94 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Holmquist, J. R. et al. Quaternary geochronology. Quat. Geochronol. 31, 53–61 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Gorham, E., Lehman, C., Dyke, A., Janssens, J. & Dyke, L. Temporal and spatial aspects of peatland initiation following deglaciation in North America. Quat. Sci. Rev. 26, 300–311 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Xu, J., Morris, P. J., Liu, J. & Holden, J. PEATMAP: Refining estimates of global peatland distribution based on a meta-analysis. Catena 160, 134–140 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Reyes, A. V. & Cooke, C. A. Northern peatland initiation lagged abrupt increases in deglacial atmospheric CH4. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 4748–4753 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Yang, J.-W., Ahn, J., Brook, E. J. & Ryu, Y. Atmospheric methane control mechanisms during the early Holocene. Clim. Past 13, 1227–1242 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Lambeck, K., Rouby, H., Purcell, A., Sun, Y. & Sambridge, M. Sea level and global ice volumes from the Last Glacial Maximum to the Holocene. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 15296–15303 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Peteet, D. M. et al. Delayed deglaciation or extreme Arctic conditions 21–16 cal. kyr at southeastern Laurentide Ice Sheet margin? Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L11706 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Jones, M. C. & Yu, Z. Rapid deglacial and early Holocene expansion of peatlands in Alaska. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 7347–7352 (2010).

  24. 24.

    Schmitt, J. et al. Carbon isotope constraints on the deglacial CO2 rise from ice cores. Science 336, 711–714 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Anderson, R. F. et al. Wind-driven upwelling in the Southern Ocean and the deglacial rise in atmospheric CO2. Science 323, 1443–1448 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Studer, A. S. et al. Antarctic Zone nutrient conditions during the last two glacial cycles. Paleoceanogr. Paleoclimatol. 30, 845–862 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Studer, A. S. et al. Increased nutrient supply to the Southern Ocean during the Holocene and its implications for the pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 rise. Nat. Geosci. 11, 756–760 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Wang, X. T. et al. Deep-sea coral evidence for lower Southern Ocean surface nitrate concentrations during the last ice age. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 3352–3357 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Sarma, V. V. S. S. Monthly variability in surface pCO2 and net air-sea CO2 flux in the Arabian Sea. J. Geophys. Res. 108(C8), 3255 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Clemens, S. C. & Prell, W. L. A 350,000 year summer-monsoon multi-proxy stack from the Owen Ridge, Northern Arabian Sea. Mar. Geol. 201, 35–51 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Naidu, P. D. & Malmgren, B. A. Seasonal sea surface temperature contrast between the Holocene and last glacial period in the western Arabian Sea (Ocean Drilling Project Site 723A): Modulated by monsoon upwelling. Paleoceanogr. Paleoclimatol. 20, PA1004 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Koutavas, A. & Joanides, S. El Niño-Southern Oscillation extrema in the Holocene and Last Glacial Maximum. Paleoceanogr. Paleoclimatol. 27, PA4208 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Koutavas, A., deMenocal, P. B., Olive, G. C. & Lynch-Stieglitz, J. Mid-Holocene El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) attenuation revealed by individual foraminifera in eastern tropical Pacific sediments. Geology 34, 993–996 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Chazen, C. R., Altabet, M. A. & Herbert, T. D. Abrupt mid-Holocene onset of centennial-scale climate variability on the Peru-Chile Margin. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L18704 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Schmittner, A. & Somes, C. J. Complementary constraints from carbon (13C) and nitrogen (15N) isotopes on the glacial ocean’s soft-tissue biological pump. Paleoceanogr. Paleoclimatol. 31, 669–693 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Berger, W. H. Increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere during deglaciation: the coral reef hypothesis. Naturwissenschaften 69, 87–88 (1982).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Vecsei, A. & Berger, W. H. Increase of atmospheric CO2 during deglaciation: constraints on the coral reef hypothesis from patterns of deposition. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 18, GB1035 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Ciais, P. et al. Large inert carbon pool in the terrestrial biosphere during the Last Glacial Maximum. Nat. Geosci. 5, 74–79 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Köhler, P., Nehrbass-Ahles, C., Schmitt, J., Stocker, T. F. & Fischer, H. A 156 kyr smoothed history of the atmospheric greenhouse gases CO2, CH4, and N2O and their radiative forcing. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 9, 363–387 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Haslett, J. & Parnell, A. A simple monotone process with application to radiocarbon-dated depth chronologies. J. Roy. Stat. Soc. Ser. C 57, 399–418 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Reimer, P. J. et al. IntCal13 and Marine13 radiocarbon age calibration curves 0–50,000 years cal BP. Radiocarbon 55, 1869–1887 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Nichols, J. E., Peteet, D. M., Frolking, S. & Karavias, J. A probabilistic method of assessing carbon accumulation rate at Imnavait Creek Peatland, Arctic Long Term Ecological Research Station, Alaska. J. Quat. Sci. 32, 579–586 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jonathan E. Nichols.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

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

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Nichols, J.E., Peteet, D.M. Rapid expansion of northern peatlands and doubled estimate of carbon storage. Nat. Geosci. 12, 917–921 (2019).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing