Widespread drying of European peatlands in recent centuries

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Climate warming and human impacts are thought to be causing peatlands to dry, potentially converting them from sinks to sources of carbon. However, it is unclear whether the hydrological status of peatlands has moved beyond their natural envelope. Here we show that European peatlands have undergone substantial, widespread drying during the last ~300 years. We analyse testate amoeba-derived hydrological reconstructions from 31 peatlands across Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and Continental Europe to examine changes in peatland surface wetness during the last 2,000 years. We find that 60% of our study sites were drier during the period 1800–2000 ce than they have been for the last 600 years, 40% of sites were drier than they have been for 1,000 years and 24% of sites were drier than they have been for 2,000 years. This marked recent transition in the hydrology of European peatlands is concurrent with compound pressures including climatic drying, warming and direct human impacts on peatlands, although these factors vary among regions and individual sites. Our results suggest that the wetness of many European peatlands may now be moving away from natural baselines. Our findings highlight the need for effective management and restoration of European peatlands.

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Fig. 1: Standardized WTD data from each site classified into three broad geographic regions (Britain and Ireland; Scandinavia and Baltics; Continental Europe).
Fig. 2: Compiled standardized water-table data from all sites and the three broad geographic regions (Britain and Ireland; Scandinavia and Baltics; Continental Europe).
Fig. 3: Comparison of peatland and climatic datasets.
Fig. 4: Matrix indicating the type and level (major, moderate, minor, none known) of human impacts on each study site.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are provided in Supplementary Section 7.


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We thank all the organizations that have funded the data used in this analysis: Academy of Finland (grant no. 296423); Department for Employment and Learning (Northern Ireland); European Commission (Fifth Framework); INTERACT (European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme); Irish Discovery Programme; Leverhulme Trust; National Science Centre (Poland); Natural Environment Research Council (UK); Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada; Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research; Polish National Science Centre (grant no. 2015/17/B/ST10/01656); Quaternary Research Association; Russian Science Foundation (grant no. 19-14-00102); Swiss Contribution to the enlarged European Union; Swiss Federal Office for Education and Science; Swiss National Science Foundation; World University Network; Wüthrich Fund (University of Neuchâtel); and Yorkshire Water. T.G.S. is funded by the Leeds–York Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Doctoral Training Partnership (grant no. NE/L002574/1). T.E.T. acknowledges NERC Doctoral Training Grant no. NE/G52398X/1. For J.M.G., this paper represents a contribution from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan contribution number/Numéro de contribution de RNCan, 20190079). G.T.S. acknowledges financial support from the Dutch Foundation for the Conservation of Irish Bogs. We thank L. Brown and A. Baird (University of Leeds) for constructive comments on the manuscript. This is a contribution to the PAGES C-PEAT group. PAGES is supported by the US National Science Foundation and the Swiss Academy of Sciences. We dedicate this work to co-author Richard J. Payne who was tragically killed while climbing Nanda Devi in the Garhwal Himalayas whilst the manuscript was in review.

Author information

G.T.S. designed the study. G.T.S., P.J.M., D.J.M., R.J.P., T.P.R, M.J.A., M.L., T.E.T, A.G.S. and T.S. compiled site-based data and performed analyses. All other authors provided data or carried out a minor component of data compilation or analysis. G.T.S., P.J.M. and D.J.M. carried out the composite data analysis and wrote the manuscript, with input from all authors.

Correspondence to Graeme T. Swindles.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Sections 1–6.

Supplementary Dataset 1

Literature-based analysis.

Supplementary Dataset 2

Water-table reconstruction datasets.

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Swindles, G.T., Morris, P.J., Mullan, D.J. et al. Widespread drying of European peatlands in recent centuries. Nat. Geosci. 12, 922–928 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41561-019-0462-z

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