PerspectiveEnvironmental Science

Peatland Response to Global Change

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Science  06 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5954, pp. 810-811
DOI: 10.1126/science.1174268

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Meter for meter, peatlands store more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem. Covering only about 3% of Earth's land area, they hold the equivalent of half of the carbon that is in the atmosphere as CO2 (1, 2). Waterlogged conditions slow decomposition, and slow rates of subsurface flow allow the partly decayed organic matter to accumulate in place. But the same processes of anaerobic decomposition that allow carbon to accumulate also produce the strong greenhouse gas methane (CH4). Over the time span of centuries, peatlands exert a net cooling effect on the global radiation balance, because the effect of removing long-lived atmospheric CO2 ultimately surpasses that of releasing short-lived CH4 (3). However, should peatlands begin to degrade on a large scale, this stored carbon could be released, reducing—or even reversing—their climate cooling effect. How will the carbon balance of peatlands change over coming centuries?