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The future of cool temperate bogs

  • Peter D. Moore (a1)

Abstract

The temperate peatlands are extensive, covering around 3.5 million km2 of land. They contain about 455 Gt of carbon, almost equivalent to the carbon stored in all of the living things on the surface of the planet, and representing around 25% of all the soil carbon on earth. These bogs are a sink for atmospheric carbon and their carbon uptake accounts for about 12% of current human emissions. They vary considerably in their form and structure and are an important resource for scientific research, including the study of past environments and climate change, and they are also valuable in environmental education. They are low in biodiversity, but their fauna and flora are distinctive and many groups are confined to this habitat. For all these reasons, the future conservation of peatlands is a matter for concern. Threats to peatlands come from direct human exploitation in the form of peat harvesting for energy and horticulture, and drainage for forestry. Rising environmental awareness should control both of these processes in the western world, but continued northern peatland losses are likely locally, especially in Asia. Peatland drainage for forestry or agriculture will result in losses of carbon to the atmosphere, adding to the greenhouse effect. Human population pressures, industrialization and urbanization are unlikely to have an important direct and immediate influence in the boreal zone. Fragmentation of the habitat is not an important consideration because bogs are by their very nature ‘island’ habitats. Acidification by aerial pollution may be a local problem close to sources, but the habitat is naturally acid and should not be severely affected. The input of aerial nutrients, however, particularly nitrogen, could have widespread impact on bogs, enhancing their productivity and altering their vegetation composition. The physical rehabilitation of bogs damaged by human activities presents many problems, particularly relating to the re-establishment of peat structure and vegetation, but the process can result in the re-formation of a carbon sink so it is worth the effort. Climate change is the most important consideration in its impact on bogs. Higher temperature (especially if accompanied by raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and increased nitrate deposition) will enhance productivity, but will also result in faster decomposition rates. The outcome of these opposing factors for peat formation will ultimately depend on the future pattern of precipitation. If, as seems most likely, summer conditions become warmer and drier in continental regions and winters become milder and wetter, the summer drought could cause peat loss and bog contraction. An excess of decomposition will lead to bogs becoming a carbon source and thus a positive feedback in global warming. Emissions of methane and nitrous oxide would add to the greenhouse gas problem, but likely oxidation of methane and low N2O production may well mean that this impact will not prove to be significant. Tree invasion of bogs as a consequence of summer drought could locally lead to increased water loss through transpiration, and higher heat absorption through albedo change. This will enhance the drying effect on the bog surface. Oceanic mires will be less severely affected if the expected increase in precipitation takes place in these regions. The most important overall factor in determining the future of the northern bogs is likely to be the quantity and pattern (both spatially and temporally) of future precipitation in the zone.

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Correspondence: Dr Peter D. Moore Tel: +44 20 7848 4283 Fax: +44 20 7848 4500 e-mail: Peter.moore@kcl.ac.uk

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The future of cool temperate bogs

  • Peter D. Moore (a1)

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