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

Min Jung Kwon, Ashley Ballantyne, Philippe Ciais, Chunjing Qiu, Elodie Salmon, Nina Raoult, Bertrand Guenet, Mathias Göckede, Eugénie S. Euskirchen, Hannu Nykänen, Edward A.G. Schuur, Merritt R. Turetsky, Catherine M. Dieleman, Evan S. Kane, Donatella Zona

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


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 CO2 and CH4 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−2 year−1; including 6 ± 7 g C–CH4 m−2 year−1 emission). We found, however, that lowering the WT by 10 cm reduced the CO2 sink by 13 ± 15 g C m−2 year−1 and decreased CH4 emission by 4 ± 4 g CH4 m−2 year−1, thus accumulating less C over 100 years (0.2 ± 0.2 kg C m−2). Yet, the reduced emission of CH4, which has a larger greenhouse warming potential, resulted in a net decrease in greenhouse gas balance by 310 ± 360 g CO2-eq m−2 year−1. Peatlands with the initial WT close to the soil surface were more vulnerable to C loss: Non-permafrost peatlands lost >2 kg C m−2 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 CH4 emissions, thus slightly reducing the positive carbon climate feedbacks of peatlands under a warmer and drier future climate scenario.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6752-6770
Number of pages19
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number22
StatePublished - Nov 2022


  • carbon flux
  • carbon stock
  • drainage
  • high latitude
  • land surface model
  • manipulation experiment
  • permafrost thaw


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