Carbon in Peatlands
Peatlands globally, and particularly in high northern latitudes, have sequestered up to about one third of the global soil organic carbon over the past 12,000 years, up to approximately 600 gigatons of carbon (Gorham 1991; Turunen et al. 2002; Yu et al. 2010). These ecosystems have also played a major role in global carbon dioxide and methane variations during the Holocene (Frolking and Roulet 2007; Yu 2011; Yu et al. 2013). Under the ongoing global warming however, the fate of this soil carbon remains a matter of considerable debate because warming temperatures increase both plant net primary production (carbon sink) and peat decomposition (carbon source). In this context, documenting long-term peatland development and associated carbon accumulation histories allows for a better understanding of present and future peatland-carbon-climate interactions and feedbacks.
A recent review indicates that the role of peatlands for the 21st century will probably be that of a relatively small (0.2 gigatons of carbon per year), but persistent contributor to the atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane burdens, with occasional large pulses due to droughts, fires, and permafrost thaw (Frolking et al. 2011). For example, catastrophic scenarios involving rapid and large carbon losses to the atmosphere due to permafrost thaw and drought (up to 10 gigatons of carbon per year ) have been proposed (e.g., Ise et al. 2008; Dorrepaal et al. 2009; Fenner and Freeman 2011). Conversely, recent paleoecological studies have shown that rapid carbon accumulation has occurred during the Holocene Thermal Maximum in northern peatlands, implying that warm growing seasons and/or strong climate seasonality might promote carbon sequestration in cold regions (e.g., Yu et al. 2009; Jones and Yu 2010). A positive relationship between mean annual temperature and carbon accumulation over the last 2000 years was also reported from Siberian peatlands along a latitudinal gradient (Beilman et al. 2009). Overall, climatically-induced alterations of the peatland carbon sink capacity could be large enough to affect the global carbon budget and the climate system, although both the sign and the magnitude of this feedback remain highly uncertain.
Overall, long-term peatland dynamics are significant to the global carbon cycle and should be incorporated in large-scale Holocene climate and carbon cycle models (e.g., Kleinen et al. 2010; Ruddiman et al. 2011; Menviel and Joos 2012; Spahni et al. 2013).
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