Lowering water table reduces carbon sink strength and carbon stocks in northern peatlands

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Peatlands at high latitudes have accumulated >400 Pg carbon (C) because saturated soil and cold temperatures suppress C decomposition. This substantial amount of C in Arctic and Boreal peatlands is potentially subject to increased decomposition if the water table (WT) decreases due to climate change, including permafrost thaw-related drying. Here, we optimize a version of the Organizing Carbon and Hydrology In Dynamic Ecosystems model (ORCHIDEE-PCH4) using site-specific observations to investigate changes in CO and CH fluxes as well as C stock responses to an experimentally manipulated decrease of WT at six northern peatlands. The unmanipulated control peatlands, with the WT <20 cm on average (seasonal max up to 45 cm) below the surface, currently act as C sinks in most years (58 ± 34 g C m year ; including 6 ± 7 g C-CH m year emission). We found, however, that lowering the WT by 10 cm reduced the CO sink by 13 ± 15 g C m year and decreased CH emission by 4 ± 4 g CH m year , thus accumulating less C over 100 years (0.2 ± 0.2 kg C m ). Yet, the reduced emission of CH , which has a larger greenhouse warming potential, resulted in a net decrease in greenhouse gas balance by 310 ± 360 g CO m year . Peatlands with the initial WT close to the soil surface were more vulnerable to C loss: Non-permafrost peatlands lost >2 kg C m over 100 years when WT is lowered by 50 cm, while permafrost peatlands temporally switched from C sinks to sources. These results highlight that reductions in C storage capacity in response to drying of northern peatlands are offset in part by reduced CH emissions, thus slightly reducing the positive carbon climate feedbacks of peatlands under a warmer and drier future climate scenario.

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Global change biology