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.

Misinterpreting carbon accumulation rates in records from near-surface peat


Peatlands are globally important stores of carbon (C) that contain a record of how their rates of C accumulation have changed over time. Recently, near-surface peat has been used to assess the effect of current land use practices on C accumulation rates in peatlands. However, the notion that accumulation rates in recently formed peat can be compared to those from older, deeper, peat is mistaken – continued decomposition means that the majority of newly added material will not become part of the long-term C store. Palaeoecologists have known for some time that high apparent C accumulation rates in recently formed peat are an artefact and take steps to account for it. Here we show, using a model, how the artefact arises. We also demonstrate that increased C accumulation rates in near-surface peat cannot be used to infer that a peatland as a whole is accumulating more C – in fact the reverse can be true because deep peat can be modified by events hundreds of years after it was formed. Our findings highlight that care is needed when evaluating recent C addition to peatlands especially because these interpretations could be wrongly used to inform land use policy and decisions.


The peatland archive – obtained from the analysis of peat cores – has often been used to investigate the effect of changes in climate on long-term (centennial-millennial) rates of peat carbon (C) accumulation1,2,3. For example, compilations of peat core records are being used to examine the role of peatlands in the global C cycle, and to understand if they will shift from C sinks to sources in the future4,5. In the last few years, the most recent part of the archive, from near-surface peat, has also been used to interpret the consequences of different land uses on the C-sink function of peatlands (e.g.6,7,8). Because these interpretations are being used to aid decisions about land use by policy makers, there is a need to discuss the notion that highly dynamic near-surface peat can be reliably used for this purpose.

Peat has built up in peatlands over thousands of years1, providing an archive that has been used to i) reconstruct Holocene climate change9,10; ii) examine past landscapes and human impacts11; iii) identify important events such as the onset of the Anthropocene12; iv) elucidate climatic and ecological effects of volcanic eruptions13; v) understand how peatlands have developed through time14; and vi) investigate how land use affects C accumulation6,7,8. Studies using the peatland archive employ a range of proxies including peat humification, plant macrofossils, pollen and spore microfossils, geochemical indicators, and testate amoeba remains (e.g.15,16.). Age control is often provided by spheroidal carbonaceous particles (SCPs), tephra layers, short-lived radioisotopes (e.g. 210Pb and 137Cs) and radiocarbon (14C) to provide accurately-dated insights into past environmental and ecological change17,18,19,20.

The challenge of interpreting C accumulation in peatlands

The rate at which C has accumulated in a peatland may be estimated by measuring the mass of C in the peat profile (from a peat core) and the age of the basal peat. If the mass per unit area of C is divided by the age of the peatland, the long-term rate of C accumulation is obtained (LORCA)21,22. LORCA will vary with the age of a peatland21 and cannot be used to indicate how a peatland’s C cycle has responded to past events such as changes in climate (e.g. the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age in NW Europe). For such finer-scale analysis, peatland scientists construct “C accumulation histories3”. Measurements of the age of peat at multiple depths down a peat core are used to construct an age-depth model for the peat profile. The C content of contiguous or regularly spaced samples of peat down a core is also measured. For each sample, or peat layer, a rate of C accumulation is calculated by dividing the C content (per unit area) of the sample by the difference in age between the bottom and top of the sample or layer. Using this approach, it is possible to see if changes in C accumulation through the core – through time – have occurred in response to external (allogenic) and internal (autogenic or developmental) factors.

Some studies6,7 have used fine-resolution estimates of recent C additions to the top of the peat profile (sometimes called RERCA: the recent rate of C accumulation22) as estimates of overall peatland C balance and have related these to recent land use change (see also Rydin and Jeglum22). In particular, both Heinemeyer et al.6 (p.7) and Marrs et al.7 (p.109) make inferences about changes in C accumulation rates over time, comparing very recently-formed peat to older material that accumulated decades to centuries earlier. However, palaeoecologists have known for some time that estimates of C accumulation rates in recently added peat cannot be assumed to be directly comparable to those derived from deeper peat.

Apparent increases in the rate of C accumulation are often evident in near-surface peat, but are an artefact4,21,23,24,25. The artefact arises because recently-formed peat has undergone less decomposition than older, deeper peat21,23,24. The mistaken assumption that rates of C accumulation in near-surface peat can be compared to those in deeper peat ignores the fact that much of the C in the uppermost peat profile will not become part of the long-term store23,26. Near-surface peat is in the zone in which the water table fluctuates (from the peat surface to depths of 50 cm or more) and in which oxygen is often readily available for decomposition: hydrologically and biochemically, the near surface is highly dynamic. Peat below this zone is subject to much lower rates of decay, mainly because there is less oxygen available (anaerobic rates of decay are very low in comparison to aerobic rates, often by a factor of 100 or more), but also because the remaining peat is more resistant to decay as the more readily-decomposed plant material has been lost23. As a result, contemporary C accumulation rates estimated for near-surface peat – the ‘acrotelm’27 – are many times greater than the long-term rates estimated for the deeper, saturated C store of ‘catotelm’27 peat (e.g.21,23,26,28). We show examples of this apparent recent increase in C accumulation rates for a selection of tropical, temperate, and Arctic peatlands in Fig. 1.

Figure 1

Carbon accumulation in three geographical zones. Data from peat cores showing recent apparent increases in the rates of C accumulation. 0 BP (before present) is 1950 CE (common era). Tropical peatland data are from Sebangau, Borneo5; temperate data are from Dead Island Bog, Northern Ireland, Malham Tarn, England and Petite Bog, Canada5; and the Arctic records are from Marooned, Sweden30 and Toolik, Alaska29 (see Supplementary Table S1).

Whilst it is possible to attempt to correct for this artefact by applying constants for the rates of plant litter addition and decay21,28, palaeoecologists often deal with it by either ignoring the record from the upper part of a peat core4,5 or by combining estimated rates of C accumulation with other proxy data to qualitatively assess changes in the functioning of the peatland ecosystem29,30. A second important consideration is that deeper peat can be modified by events such as drought or fire that occur many years after it was formed26,31. For obvious reasons, short cores cannot reveal what is happening, or what has happened, in such deeper peat. Therefore, although short cores can be used to compare spatial differences in recent rates of C addition over a few decades (e.g.7,24), they cannot be used to determine if a peatland is currently a C sink or a source because they contain no information about C losses deeper in the peat profile. Incomplete decay of newly added plant litter and the continued modification of deeper C stores means that contemporary C addition to the acrotelm should not be used as a measure of temporal variability in long-term C accumulation rates. As a result, understanding the effect of climate change on recent rates of C accumulation in peatlands, based on data from cores, is one of the current challenges in palaeoecology.

Simulating peatland C accumulation

Here we use the DigiBog peatland development model32,33 to show in more detail how the near-surface artefact in the apparent rate of C accumulation arises. We explore how using the upper profile alone for estimating a peatland’s C budget can give a fundamentally flawed impression of the impact of management or climate on peatland functioning. In particular, we simulate the effect of ditch drainage to show how C additions to the upper part of the peatland can occur despite an overall loss of C from the peat profile. We ran two simulations; one of an intact (‘natural’) peatland and one where a series of regularly spaced ditch drains was added (see Methods) along the transect between the centre and the margin of our peatland (‘drained’).

In DigiBog, a peatland consists of contiguous and hydrologically connected columns of peat. These columns grow upwards if the rate of plant litter addition exceeds the rate of peat decay in the column. On the other hand, if decay exceeds plant litter addition, columns shrink and the simulated peatland surface subsides. Rates of litter addition depend on water-table position, which is simulated using a hydrological sub-model within DigiBog, and on air temperature (Fig. 2a). Water table and temperature also affect rates of peat decay, which are typically much higher above the water table than below it (see above). Water-table position depends on climate (net rainfall – Fig. 2b) and the hydraulic conductivity (permeability) of the peat which is also simulated by the model (see Young et al.33 for a full description).

Figure 2

Simulated rates of C accumulation in the natural and drained peatlands. Driving data: (a) annual air temperature, and (b) the time series used to create the net rainfall input. (c) Apparent C accumulation rates and (d) net C accumulation/loss. The peatland was modelled over 6,000 years (most recent 600 years shown). For the ditch-drained simulation, a series of 0.5 m deep ditches were added 200 years before the end of the simulation (before a notional ‘present’) and remained open (i.e., they were open for 200 years). See Methods for details of the model parameters and the driving data.

The C accumulation history (see above) in a ‘virtual’ core taken from the midpoint between the centre and margin of our modelled natural peatland (Fig. 2c) is comparable to the peatland core data shown in Fig. 1, and the long-term rate is within the range of values published elsewhere (e.g.5,24,26,34). For example, Gallego-Sala et al.5 reported mean C accumulation rates from CE 850–1850 of 3–80 g m−2 yr−1 for a range of peatlands: the rate for our virtual natural core for a similar 1,000-year period was 26.9 g m−2 yr−1. The modelled ‘natural’ peatland shows that, although long-term C accumulation was relatively constant (Fig. 2c), the apparent rate of C accumulation in near-surface (recently added) peat was significantly higher than in peat that was more than 200 years old (i.e. the long-term rate) (Table 1).

Table 1 Apparent rates of C accumulation in cores from the centre-margin midpoint of the natural and drained peatlands. For details of the simulations, see Methods.

The results of the ditch-drained simulation shows how deepening the water table leads to the net loss of C from the peatland, shown by the line of C accumulation for the drained core being below that of the natural core (Fig. 2c,d) (see, also, Table 1). Deeper peat that has accumulated several centuries before the peatland is drained loses mass only very slowly under anoxic decay conditions. However, when the ditch is added, and water tables are deepened by drainage, this peat undergoes relatively high rates of decomposition because it is exposed to oxic conditions once again (known as secondary decomposition31). This is why the drained line in Fig. 2c,d is below the natural line.

Our results also show that, whilst these deeper (older) C stores are being depleted, new C can still be added to the peatland surface at rates that appear to have increased when compared to the long-term rate of accumulation (Table 1). Table 1 shows that the rates of C accumulation calculated for peat less than 200 years old are many times higher than that calculated for older peat. However, peat that is less than 200 years old is relatively close to the surface of our simulated peatland – its thickness in the natural and drained cores is 0.42 m and 0.33 m respectively – which is still in the zone of water-table fluctuation and it could therefore be periodically subject to the higher rate of oxic decay. The net result of these processes (the balance between plant litter addition and peat decomposition) under our simulated ditch drainage conditions, is that the total amount of peat (and therefore the carbon stock – see Fig. 2d) decreases even though new litter/peat continues to be added to the peatland surface. At the end of the simulations, the thickness of the peat core from the natural peatland was 3.47 m, whereas the peat core from the drained peatland was 3.28 m. Frolking et al.35 used a 1D model to compare apparent C accumulation rates and peatland C budget in response to different precipitation inputs and a ditch drain (simulated by lowering the water level within the peat column). Similarly, they also showed a discrepancy between the two quantities and highlighted the challenges of making inferences about net C balance from the apparent accumulation rate. Both modelling approaches show clearly why it is a mistake to use recent rates of C addition to the upper part of a peat profile as an indication of overall peatland C accumulation rates, or of net peat C balance6,7.

Comparing contemporary and long-term rates of C accumulation

Whilst it might seem obvious that ditch drainage causes a peatland to lose mass overall (e.g.36,37), our simulated peatlands illustrate two important points about how observations based on the rate of C accumulation in near-surface peat can be misleading.

Firstly, the partially decomposed plant litter that is added to a peatland does not remain a fixed quantity. As has been known for some time27, plant litter added at the surface decays at an initially rapid rate, which slows as the residual material becomes less degradable, and is gradually buried within the peat profile. Eventually it becomes waterlogged where decay of the remaining, largely recalcitrant, fraction continues very slowly. By this point, only a small amount of the original material remains as part of the long-term C store: our simulations reproduce this effect (see also Frolking et al.35). It therefore follows that, even in the absence of any changes in climate or peatland management, the calculated rate of C accumulation in near-surface peat will be many times higher than that in centuries-old material. This roughly ‘hockey stick’ shaped profile is what palaeoecologists would expect to see in their C accumulation profiles (Fig. 1).

Our simulations demonstrate that long term and recent rates of C accumulation cannot be compared directly in a useful way without considering the incomplete decomposition of the near-surface peat. Attempts to take account of the artefact include Loisel and Yu28, who used three models parameterised with data from their cores (from a site in south central Alaska undergoing a fen-to-bog transition) to calculate decomposition losses in acrotelm peat which they compared to older catotelm peat that they ‘recomposed’ using reconstructed fluxes. Whilst this approach is a significant improvement on direct comparisons of recent and past estimates of rates of C accumulation, additional data from cores is still needed to contextualise model outputs and test their plausibility28. However, if meaningful comparisons are to be made between recent and long-term estimates of C accumulation rates, an ecological modelling approach is probably needed.

Secondly, our ditch-drained simulation demonstrates that high rates of litter addition at the peatland surface do not indicate that the peatland as a whole is accumulating C – the addition of new mass needs to exceed all losses throughout the whole profile for this to be the case23,24. This point is explained further in Fig. 3. Therefore, near-surface rates of C addition cannot be used on their own to represent the overall C budget of a peatland24,26,28 and should not be directly compared to the rates of accumulation from other peatlands where the total C budget has been correctly measured7. This is especially the case where management or random events such as drought or fire26 can alter the decay rate of deeper peat by exposing previously anoxic material to aerobic (secondary) decomposition, as shown in our ditch-drained simulation.

Figure 3

The change in the C store of a simulated peatland before and after ditch drainage. (a) Cross section of peatland showing ditch drain and nearby virtual peat core. (b) The reduction in C store caused by a ditch drain. Although new peat is added to the surface of the example column, the total loss of peat throughout the column due to decay in both the original acrotelm (Ao) and the original upper catotelm (Cs) exceeds the mass of the new material (N).

Our results also have relevance to the ongoing debate regarding the impact of drainage-based plantation forestry on the peatland carbon balance. Studies in Fennoscandia and in the UK (e.g.38,39,40,41,42,43) have suggested that peatland forestry may be net-beneficial for C stocks due to the higher rates of litter input compared to a natural bog. Our simulations suggest that, by quantifying the (easy to measure) accumulation of near-surface litter but not the (hard to measure) decrease in deep peat C stocks, these studies may have reached overly optimistic conclusions regarding the net impact of forestry activities on the peatland C balance.

Clearly, policy makers require timely information about the impacts of climate and land use on peatland C stores, but our model simulations demonstrate that assessments based on near-surface peat alone are likely to be misleading at best. In contrast, measurements of CO2 exchange across the peat surface (e.g. using eddy covariance techniques) capture the net effect of changes in both the input of C to the system and in the overall rate of decomposition throughout the peat profile. While these methods also present methodological challenges (notably requiring measurements or estimates of fluvial dissolved and particulate C losses to construct whole-peatland C budgets), they are likely to provide the most reliable indication of the net impact of management activities on the contemporary peatland C balance, especially when averaged over a sufficient number of years to account for inter-annual variability (e.g.44).

Care is also required when comparing contemporary C flux measurements to data from deeper within peat cores. Even when near-surface peat is ignored, C accumulation rates calculated for discrete layers do not indicate the whole-peatland C budget for the time period represented by the difference in age between the bottom and top of the layer. For example, consider a peatland that formed 9,000 cal. BP and a layer of peat within that peatland that is 4,300 cal. BP at its base and 4,180 cal. BP at its top. The calculation of the C accumulation rate for the layer simply considers organic matter added to the peatland between the bounding dates and what has happened to that organic matter over the years since. However, between 4,300 cal. BP and 4,180 cal. BP, C would have been lost via decay from the peat that formed between 9,000 cal. BP and 4,300 cal. BP – the older peat below the layer – and this loss would have been part of the whole-peatland C budget at the time. Necessarily, when we consider only the organic matter within a particular layer, the C budget of the rest of the peat profile is ignored. Therefore, C accumulation rates calculated for layers of peat cannot be meaningfully compared with contemporary flux measurements.

It may seem reasonable instead to compare contemporary flux measurements with the average rate of peat accumulation estimated for the entire peat profile (LORCA), because both consider the whole peat column. However, LORCA averages across a peatland’s entire developmental history (likely to be over many centuries), whereas gas flux measurements are quasi-instantaneous (one or two decades at best). This difference in averaging periods leads to two problems that prevent useful comparisons. Firstly, LORCA is affected by past changes in external boundary conditions (e.g. climate, drainage), whereas flux measurements only reflect how modern external conditions are influencing a peatland’s C budget. Secondly, LORCA contains information – for example, peat thickness, C stock, vegetation type, and trophic status – generated when the peatland itself was almost certainly different from today (see21). However, in contrast, contemporary gas fluxes reflect only the peatland’s current status. For these reasons, LORCA and contemporary gas flux measurements describe peatlands that may be very different from one another. As such these two measurements cannot be compared in a meaningful way.


Our findings show that the growing use of the uppermost part of the peatland archive for environmental reconstruction should be tempered with caution on what this part of the peat profile can reveal about the C-sink function of peatlands. Our results support the recommendation that C accumulation rates obtained from peat cores should not be used as the only source of evidence about the recent effects of management or climate on the peatland C store, but should be coupled with other models and contemporary and/or palaeoecological evidence about the ecosystem (e.g.26,28,29). Our numerical experiments and discussion highlight:

  1. 1.

    Rates of net C addition in near-surface peat cannot be directly compared with long-term rates from deeper layers.

  2. 2.

    A peatland can undergo net C loss even though the uppermost part of the profile shows a gain in C.

  3. 3.

    Spatial comparisons of recent C addition can be made using short cores but cannot be used to infer the total peatland C budget.

  4. 4.

    Contemporary C flux measurements cannot be directly compared to C accumulation rate estimates for peat layers from the palaeoecological record.

  5. 5.

    The average rate of C accumulation over the entire developmental history of the peatland (i.e. from the base to the surface, LORCA) cannot be meaningfully compared with contemporary flux measurements due to the substantial differences encompassed by their averaging periods.


Model setup and accumulation rates

We used DigiBog to simulate the accumulation of peat over 6,000 years in a small 300-m wide raised bog on a flat impermeable mineral soil – we simulated a 150 m transect (75 × 2 m × 2 m columns) from the centre of the peatland to its margin where a fixed water level represented a lagg stream. In the ditch-drained simulation, ten 0.5 m deep contour-parallel ditches were simulated for the last 200 years of the model run. Starting at 10 m from the peatland margin, the ditches were simulated at 12 m intervals. Ditches were created in the model by removing the peat layers in each of the ditched columns and setting a Dirichlet constant water level33 at 0.5 m below the peat surface. The model was set up as described by Young et al.33 but with the parameter values from Morris et al.45 (who simulated the raised bog of Malham Tarn Moss in northern England – henceforth MTM – using a 1D version of DigiBog). We used the version of DigiBog described by Young et al.33 (available with a set of input files from with the addition of a routine to speed up run times by aggregating layers of peat of less than 2.5 × 10–3 m thick.

In DigiBog, new peat layers are added to each column at the end of every year of a simulation. Within a year layers are decomposed according to water table position and annual air temperature. Throughout a simulation, the model keeps track of the age and the decreasing mass (g m−2) of a layer which enabled us to calculate the annual rate of peat accumulation between two contiguous layers. Starting at the base of a virtual core, we added half of the mass of sequential pairs of layers (i.e. layers 1 and 2, layers 2 and 3, etc.) and divided the sum by the number of years between the two layers. To estimate the rate of C accumulation, the resulting peat mass was multiplied by 0.528.

Driving data

The climate inputs to the model (rainfall minus evapotranspiration and annual air temperature) represented the Holocene climate around MTM (see Morris et al.45 for a description of the location and reconstruction of the climate inputs). We used 6,000 years of the reconstructed data: the 6,000 year mean net rainfall and air temperature was 96.2 cm and 7.1 °C respectively (Fig. 2a,b). Although the original net rainfall data series was reconstructed as annual inputs, rather than use this lumped value we imposed a seasonal pattern on the data and distributed them as weekly inputs to DigiBog. This approach allows excess winter net rainfall to be lost from the model (analogous to runoff) rather than to be effectively redistributed to drier summer months.

We modified the MTM annual net rainfall data with weekly inputs from data collected between 2010 and 2013 at Keighley Moor (henceforth KM) – also in northern England – used in DigiBog simulations by Young et al.33. The KM data represented a single average year; therefore, although the annual net rainfall for MTM varied from year-to-year, we imposed the same seasonal pattern from the KM data across all MTM years. Each annual value from the MTM time series was transformed into a weekly series by first processing the KM data. We calculated the proportional difference between the KM weekly values and the KM annual mean for each of the 52 weeks in the dataset. Then, for each year of the MTM dataset, we multiplied the annual net rainfall by each of the 52 KM proportional differences to produce weekly values for 6,000 years.

Data availability

DigiBog model outputs are available from Dylan M. Young on reasonable request. Peat core C accumulation data is in the Supplementary Information.


  1. 1.

    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).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Turner, T. E., Swindles, G. T. & Roucoux, K. H. Late Holocene ecohydrological and carbon dynamics of a UK raised bog: impact of human activity and climate change. Quat. Sci. Rev. 84, 65–85 (2014).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Charman, D. J. et al. Drivers of Holocene peatland carbon accumulation across a climate gradient in northeastern North America. Quat. Sci. Rev. 121, 110–119 (2015).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

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

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    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).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Heinemeyer, A., Asena, Q., Burn, W. L. & Jones, A. L. Peatland carbon stocks and burn history: Blanket bog peat core evidence highlights charcoal impacts on peat physical properties and long-term carbon storage. Geo Geogr. Environ. 5, e00063 (2018).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Marrs, R. H. et al. Experimental evidence for sustained carbon sequestration in fire-managed, peat moorlands. Nat. Geosci. 12, 108 (2019).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Stivrins, N. et al. Drivers of peat accumulation rate in a raised bog: impact of drainage, climate, and local vegetation composition. Mires Peat 19, 1–19 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Booth, R. K. & Jackson, S. T. A high-resolution record of late-Holocene moisture variability from a Michigan raised bog, USA. The Holocene 13, 863–876 (2003).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Charman, D. J., Blundell, A., Chiverrell, R. C., Hendon, D. & Langdon, P. G. Compilation of non-annually resolved Holocene proxy climate records: stacked Holocene peatland palaeo-water table reconstructions from northern Britain. Quat. Sci. Rev. 25, 336–350 (2006).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Yeloff, D., van Geel, B., Broekens, P., Bakker, J. & Mauquoy, D. Mid- to late-Holocene vegetation and land-use history in the Hadrian’s Wall region of northern England: the record from Butterburn Flow. The Holocene 17, 527–538 (2007).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Swindles, G. T. et al. Spheroidal carbonaceous particles are a defining stratigraphic marker for the Anthropocene. Sci. Rep. 5, 10264 (2015).

    ADS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Hall, V. A. & Mauquoy, D. Tephra-dated climate-and human-impact studies during the last 1500 years from a raised bog in central Ireland. The Holocene 15, 1086–1093 (2005).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Gałka, M., Tanţău, I., Ersek, V. & Feurdean, A. A 9000 year record of cyclic vegetation changes identified in a montane peatland deposit located in the Eastern Carpathians (Central-Eastern Europe): Autogenic succession or regional climatic influences? Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 449, 52–61 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Amesbury, M. J. et al. Towards a Holarctic synthesis of peatland testate amoeba ecology: Development of a new continental-scale palaeohydrological transfer function for North America and comparison to European data. Quat. Sci. Rev. 201, 483–500 (2018).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Swindles, G. T. et al. Ecosystem state shifts during long-term development of an Amazonian peatland. Glob. Change Biol. 24, 738–757 (2018).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Le Roux, G. & Marshall, W. A. Constructing recent peat accumulation chronologies using atmospheric fall-out radionuclides. Mires and Peat 7(Art.8); (2011).

  18. 18.

    Piotrowska, N., Blaauw, M., Mauquoy, D. & Chambers, F. M. Constructing deposition chronologies for peat deposits using radiocarbon dating. Mires and Peat 7(Art.10); (2011).

  19. 19.

    Swindles, G. T. Dating recent peat profiles using spheroidal carbonaceous particles (SCPs). Mires and Peat 7(Art.3); (2010).

  20. 20.

    Swindles, G. T., Vleeschouwer, F. D. & Plunkett, G. Dating peat profiles using tephra: stratigraphy, geochemistry and chronology. Mires and Peat 7(Art.5); (2010).

  21. 21.

    Clymo, R. S., Turunen, J. & Tolonen, K. Carbon Accumulation in Peatland. Oikos 81, 368–388 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Rydin, H. & Jeglum, J. K. The Biology of Peatlands (Oxford University Press, 2006).

  23. 23.

    Clymo, R. S. The Limits to Peat Bog Growth. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B. Biol. Sci. 303, 605–654 (1984).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Billett, M. et al. Carbon balance of UK peatlands: current state of knowledge and future research challenges. Clim. Res. 45, 13–29 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Levy, P. & Gray, A. Greenhouse gas balance of a semi-natural peatbog in northern Scotland. Environ. Res. Lett. 10, 094019 (2015).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Ratcliffe, J. et al. Contemporary carbon fluxes do not reflect the long-term carbon balance for an Atlantic blanket bog. The Holocene 28, 140–149 (2018).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Ingram, H.A.P. Soil Layers in Mires: Function and Terminology. J. Soil Sci. 29, 224–227 (1978).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Loisel, J. & Yu, Z. Recent acceleration of carbon accumulation in a boreal peatland, south-central Alaska. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 1–13 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Taylor, L. S., Swindles, G. T., Morris, P. J., Gałka, M. & Green, S. M. Evidence for ecosystem state shifts in Alaskan continuous permafrost peatlands in response to recent warming. Quat. Sci. Rev. 207, 134–144 (2019).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Swindles, G. T. et al. The long-term fate of permafrost peatlands under rapid climate warming. Sci. Rep. 5, 17951, (2016).

  31. 31.

    Tipping, R. Holocene evolution of a lowland Scottish landscape: Kirkpatrick Fleming. Part I, peat and pollen-stratigraphic evidence for raised moss development and climatic change. The Holocene 5, 69–81 (1995).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Baird, A. J., Morris, P. J. & Belyea, L. R. The DigiBog peatland development model 1: rationale, conceptual model, and hydrological basis. Ecohydrology 5, 242–255 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Young, D. M., Baird, A. J., Morris, P. J. & Holden, J. Simulating the long-term impacts of drainage and restoration on the ecohydrology of peatlands. Water Resour. Res. 53, 6510–6522 (2017).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Gorham, E. Northern Peatlands: Role in the Carbon Cycle and Probable Responses to Climatic Warming. Ecol. Appl. 1, 182–195 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Frolking, S., Talbot, J. & Subin, Z. M. Exploring the relationship between peatland net carbon balance and apparent carbon accumulation rate at century to millennial time scales. The Holocene 24, 1167–1173 (2014).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Moore, S. et al. Deep instability of deforested tropical peatlands revealed by fluvial organic carbon fluxes. Nature 493, 660–664 (2013).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Williamson, J. et al. Historical peat loss explains limited short-term response of drained blanket bogs to rewetting. J. Environ. Manage. 188, 278–286 (2017).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Minkkinen, K. & Laine, J. Effect of forest drainage on the peat bulk density of pine mires in Finland. Can. J. For. Res. 28, 178–186 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Hargreaves, K. J., Milne, R. & Cannell, M. G. R. Carbon balance of afforested peatland in Scotland. For. Int. J. For. Res. 76, 299–317 (2003).

    Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    Minunno, F., Xenakis, G., Perks, M. P. & Mencuccini, M. Calibration and validation of a simplified process-based model for the prediction of the carbon balance of Scottish Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) plantations. Can. J. For. Res. 40, 2411–2426 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41.

    Morison, J. et al. Understanding the GHG implications of forestry on peat soils in Scotland. (2010).

  42. 42.

    Ojanen, P., Minkkinen, K. & Penttilä, T. The current greenhouse gas impact of forestry-drained boreal peatlands. For. Ecol. Manag. 289, 201–208 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Vanguelova, E. et al. Afforestation and restocking on peaty soils – new evidence assessment. (2018).

  44. 44.

    Roulet, N. T. et al. Contemporary carbon balance and late Holocene carbon accumulation in a northern peatland. Glob. Change Biol. 13, 397–411 (2007).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Morris, P. J., Baird, A. J., Young, D. M. & Swindles, G. T. Untangling climate signals from autogenic changes in long-term peatland development. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 2015GL066824 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


D.M.Y. was funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (Natural Environment Research Council) NE/P00783X/1. We thank Liam Taylor for providing the C accumulation records for Toolik, Alaska (Fig. 1 and Supplementary Information).

Author information




D.M.Y. wrote the paper, undertook the DigiBog simulations and processed the simulation outputs. A.J.B. proposed the paper, helped write it, and helped design the DigiBog simulations. D.J.C., A.V.G-S. and G.T.S. supplied the peat core data used in Fig. 1. D.J.C., P.D.M.H., P.J.M., A.V.G-S., and G.T.S. helped with the peatland palaeoecological context. C.D.E. helped with the peatland land use context. P.J.G. wrote and implemented the algorithm to speed up model run times. All authors contributed to the preparation of the final paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dylan M. Young.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

D.M.Y., A.J.B. and C.D.E. were in receipt of Natural Environment Research Council grant NE/P00783X/1 during the writing of this paper. G.T.S. has received funding from the Dutch Foundation for the Conservation of Irish Bogs. The other authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

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

Supplementary Information

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this license, visit

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Young, D.M., Baird, A.J., Charman, D.J. et al. Misinterpreting carbon accumulation rates in records from near-surface peat. Sci Rep 9, 17939 (2019).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


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