The harm caused to the northern hemisphere’s peatlands as a result of wildfires could lead to greater quantities of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, a new study involving the University of Plymouth has warned.
Peatlands are a globally important carbon stock, storing twice as much carbon as the world’s forests, and until now it has been difficult to measure the impact of wildfire on the northern peatland carbon stock or to predict its future.
New research published in Nature Climate Change has estimated for the first time how degradation, wildfire combustion and post-fire dynamics influence carbon emissions from non-permafrost peatlands across vast areas of the northern hemisphere.
When peatlands are drained, typically to convert them to agriculture or forestry, they release carbon back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. The study estimated that these emissions are enhanced by as much as 10% when taking wildfire into account.
Using a modelling approach, the researchers found that while northern peatlands as a whole are still currently sequestering carbon, small increases to the drained area, fire severity or burn area can all switch the system to a net source of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
There is already evidence from other studies of climate-induced drying in peatlands, which could contribute to increased fire severity and higher emissions during a wildfire. Current predictions also point to a drastic increase in annual area burned over the coming century in the northern hemisphere, as well as an increase in extreme wildfire weather.
A reduction in the strength of our natural carbon sinks will make it more difficult to remain below critical global climate and emission reduction targets.