Peatlands as Carbon Sinks

Peat is about 51% carbon and peatlands hold about 270370 Pg (petagram) of carbon or about one-third of the world's soil carbon. For example in Alberta (Canada), where peatlands cover about 21 % of the provincial landscape, the carbon in peatlands amounts to 13.5 Pg compared to 0.8 Pg in agricultural soils, 2.3 Pg in lake sediments, and 2.7 Pg in the province's forests. Estimates for apparent long-term carbon accumulation in oceanic, boreal, and subarctic peatlands range from around 19 to 25gCm~2yr~2. However, disturbances can have a dramatic effect on carbon accumulation. Wildfire, peat extraction, dams and associated flooding, mining, oil and gas extraction, and other disturbances all reduce the potential for peatlands to sequester carbon, while only permafrost melting of frost mounds in boreal peatlands has been documented to have a positive effect on carbon sequestration. One recent study has suggested that effects from disturbance in Canada's western boreal region have reduced the regional carbon flux (amount of carbon sequestered in the regional peatlands) from about 8940 Gg (gigagram) C yr-1 under undisturbed conditions to 1319 Gg carbon sequestered per year under the present disturbance regime, yet only 13% of the peatlands have been affected by recent disturbance. These data suggest that although for the long-term peatlands in the boreal forest region have been a carbon sink and have been removing carbon from the atmosphere, at the present time, due to disturbance, this capacity is greatly diminished. Furthermore, when disturbance is examined in more detail, it is wildfire that is the single greatest contributor to loss of carbon sequestration, both from a direct loss as a result of the fire itself as well as from a loss of carbon accumulation due to post-fire recovery losses. If wildfire greatly increases as is predicted by climate change models, then the effectiveness ofpeatlands to sequester carbon may be greatly reduced and it has been proposed that an increase of only 17% in the area burned annually could convert these peatlands to a regional net source of carbon to the atmosphere. If boreal peatlands become a source for atmospheric carbon, then the carbon contained within the current boreal peatland pool, in total, is approximately two-thirds of all the carbon in the atmosphere.

See also: Boreal Forest; Botanical Gardens; Chaparral

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