The potential of high severity wildfires to increase global terrestrial carbon emissions and exacerbate future climatic warming is of international concern. Nowhere is this more prevalent than within high latitude regions where peatlands have, over millennia, accumulated legacy carbon stocks comparable to all human CO2 emissions since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Drying increases rates of peat decomposition and associated atmospheric and aquatic carbon emissions. The degree to which severe wildfires enhance drying under future climates and induce instability in peatland ecological communities and carbon stocks is unknown. Here we show that high burn severities increased post-fire evapotranspiration by 410% within a feather moss peatland by burning through the protective capping layer that restricts evaporative drying in response to low severity burns. High burn severities projected under future climates will therefore leave peatlands that dominate dry sub-humid regions across the boreal, on the edge of their climatic envelopes, more vulnerable to intense post-fire drying, inducing high rates of carbon loss to the atmosphere that amplify the direct combustion emissions.
Abstract. The hummock–hollow classification framework used to categorize peatland ecosystem microtopography is pervasive throughout peatland experimental designs and current peatland ecosystem modeling approaches. However, identifying what constitutes a representative hummock–hollow pair within a site and characterizing hummock–hollow variability within or between peatlands remains largely unassessed. Using structure from motion (SfM), high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs) of hummock–hollow microtopography were used to (1) examine how much area needs to be sampled to characterize site-level microtopographic variation; and (2) examine the potential role of microtopographic shape/structure on biogeochemical fluxes using plot-level data from nine northern peatlands. To capture 95 % of site-level microtopographic variability, on average, an aggregate sampling area of 32 m2 composed of 10 randomly located plots was required. Both site- (i.e. transect data) and plot-level (i.e. SfM-derived DEM) results show that microtopographic variability can be described as a fractal at the submeter scale, where contributions to total variance are very small below a 0.5 m length scale. Microtopography at the plot level was often found to be non-bimodal, as assessed using a Gaussian mixture model (GMM). Our findings suggest that the non-bimodal distribution of microtopography at the plot level may result in an undersampling of intermediate topographic positions. Extended to the modeling domain, an underrepresentation of intermediate microtopographic positions is shown to lead to potentially large flux biases over a wide range of water table positions for ecosystem processes which are non-linearly related to water and energy availability at the moss surface. Moreover, our simple modeling results suggest that much of the bias can be eliminated by representing microtopography with several classes rather than the traditional two (i.e. hummock/hollow). A range of tools examined herein can be used to easily parameterize peatland models, from GMMs used as simple transfer functions to spatially explicit fractal landscapes based on simple power-law relations between microtopographic variability and scale.
Northern peatlands are important global carbon stores, but there is concern that these boreal peat reserves are at risk due to increased fire frequency and severity as predicted by climate change models. In a subhumid climate, hydrogeological position is an important control on peatland hydrology and wildfire vulnerability. Consequently, we hypothesized that in a coarse‐textured glaciofluvial outwash, isolated peatlands lacking the moderating effect of large‐scale groundwater flow would have greater water table (WT) variability and would also be more vulnerable to deep WT drawdown and wildfire during dry climate cycles. A holistic approach was taken to evaluate 3 well‐accepted factors that are associated with smouldering in boreal peatlands: hollow microform coverage, peatland margin morphometry, and gravimetric water content. Using a combination of field measurements (bulk density, humification, WT position, hummock–hollow distribution, and margin width) and modelling (1‐D vertical unsaturated flow coupled with a simple peat–fuel energy balance equation), we assessed the vulnerability of peat to smouldering. We found that a peatland in the regionally intermediate topographic position is the most vulnerable to smouldering due to the interaction of variable connectivity to large‐scale groundwater flow and the absence of mineral stratigraphy for limiting WT declines during dry conditions. Our findings represent a novel assessment framework and tool for fire managers by providing a priori knowledge of potential peat smouldering hot spot locations in the landscape to efficiently allocate resources and reduce emergency response time to smouldering events.
Abstract Wildfire is the largest disturbance affecting peatlands, with northern peat reserves expected to become more vulnerable to wildfire as climate change enhances the length and severity of the fire season. Recent research suggests that high water table positions after wildfire are critical to limit atmospheric carbon losses and enable the re-establishment of keystone peatland mosses (i.e. Sphagnum). Post-fire recovery of the moss surface in Sphagnum-feathermoss peatlands, however, has been shown to be limited where moss type and burn severity interact to result in a water repellent surface. While in situ measurements of moss water repellency in peatlands have been shown to be greater for feathermoss in both a burned and unburned state in comparison to Sphagnum moss, it is difficult to separate the effect of water content from species. Consequently, we carried out a laboratory based drying experiment where we compared the water repellency of two dominant peatland moss species, Sphagnum and feathermoss, for several burn severity classes including unburned samples. The results suggest that water repellency in moss is primarily controlled by water content, where a sharp threshold exists at gravimetric water contents (GWC) lower than ∼1.4 g g−1. While GWC is shown to be a strong predictor of water repellency, the effect is enhanced by burning. Based on soil water retention curves, we suggest that it is highly unlikely that Sphagnum will exhibit strong hydrophobic conditions under field conditions.