Sophie Wilkinson


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iWetland: A Community Science Platform for Monitoring Wetland Water Levels
Taylor D. North, Paul A. Moore, Waverley Birch, Chantel E. Markle, Hope C. A. Freeman, Alex Furukawa, Danielle T. Hudson, Sophie Wilkinson, J. M. Waddington
Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, Volume 8, Issue 1

iWetland is a community science wetland water level monitoring platform developed by the McMaster Ecohydrology Lab and tested from 2016 to 2019 in wetlands located east of Georgian Bay, Ontario, Canada. The goal of iWetland is to engage community members in wetland science while collecting data to better understand the spatiotemporal variability in water level patterns of wetlands. We installed 24 iWetland water level monitoring stations in popular hiking and camping areas where visitors can text the water level of the wetland to an online database that automatically collates the data. Here, we share our approach for developing the iWetland community science platform and its importance for monitoring all types of wetland ecosystems. From 2016 through 2019, almost 2,000 individuals recorded more than 2,600 water table measurements. The iWetland platform successfully collected accurate water table data for 24 wetlands. We discuss the successes and shortcomings of the community science platform with respect to data collection, community engagement, and participation. We found that forming mutually beneficial partnerships with community groups paired with strong outreach presence were key to the success of this community science platform. Finally, we recommend that those interested in adopting the iWetland platform in their community partner with community groups, recognize participant contributions, identify accessible sites, and host outreach activities.

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Wildfire and degradation accelerate northern peatland carbon release
Sophie Wilkinson, Roxane Andersen, Paul A. Moore, Scott J. Davidson, Gustaf Granath, J. M. Waddington
Nature Climate Change, Volume 13, Issue 5

The northern peatland carbon sink plays a vital role in climate regulation; however, the future of the carbon sink is uncertain, in part, due to the changing interactions of peatlands and wildfire. Here, we use empirical datasets from natural, degraded and restored peatlands in non-permafrost boreal and temperate regions to model net ecosystem exchange and methane fluxes, integrating peatland degradation status, wildfire combustion and post-fire dynamics. We find that wildfire processes reduced carbon uptake in pristine peatlands by 35% and further enhanced emissions from degraded peatlands by 10%. The current small net sink is vulnerable to the interactions of peatland degraded area, burn rate and peat burn severity. Climate change impacts accelerated carbon losses, where increased burn severity and burn rate reduced the carbon sink by 38% and 65%, respectively, by 2100. However, our study demonstrates the potential for active peatland restoration to buffer these impacts. Northern peatland carbon sink plays a vital role in climate regulation. Here, the authors show that wildfire reduced peatland carbon uptake and enhanced emissions from degraded peatlands; climate change impacts accelerated carbon losses where increased burn rate and severity reduced carbon sink.


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Peat surface compression reduces smouldering fire potential as a novel fuel treatment for boreal peatlands
Patrick Jeffrey Deane, Sophie Wilkinson, Gregory J. Verkaik, Paul A. Moore, Dave Schroeder, J. M. Waddington
Canadian Journal of Forest Research, Volume 52, Issue 3

The wildfire regime in Canada’s boreal region is changing; extended fire seasons are characterized by more frequent large fires (≥200 ha) burning greater areas of land, whilst climate-mediated drying is increasing the vulnerability of peatlands to deep burning. Proactive management strategies, such as fuel modification treatments, are necessary to reduce fire danger at the wildland-human interface (WHI). Novel approaches to fuel management are especially needed in peatlands where deep smouldering combustion is a challenge to suppression efforts and releases harmful emissions. Here, we integrate surface compression within conventional stand treatments to examine the potential for reducing smouldering of near-surface moss and peat. A linear model (adj. R2=0.62, p=2.2e-16) revealed that ground cover (F(2,101)=60.97, p<0.001) and compression (F(1,101)=56.46, p<0.001) had the greatest effects on smouldering potential, while stand treatment did not have a significant effect (F(3,101)=0.44, p=0.727). On average, compressed Sphagnum and feather moss plots showed 57.1% and 58.7% lower smouldering potential, respectively, when compared to uncompressed analogs. While practical evaluation is warranted to better understand the evolving effectiveness of this strategy, these findings demonstrate that a compression treatment can be successfully incorporated within both managed and unmanaged peatlands to reduce fire danger at the WHI.

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Wetland Successional State Affects Fire Severity in a Boreal Shield Landscape
Chantel E. Markle, Henry J. M. Gage, Alex M. Tekatch, Sophie Wilkinson, J. M. Waddington
Wetlands, Volume 42, Issue 7


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Ecohydrological trade-offs from multiple peatland disturbances: The interactive effects of drainage, harvesting, restoration and wildfire in a southern Ontario bog
Colin P.R. McCarter, Sophie Wilkinson, Paul A. Moore, J. M. Waddington
Journal of Hydrology, Volume 601

• Greater restored moss cover decreased peat burn severity. • Deep vs shallow harvesting depth drove divergent post-fire soil water conditions. • Shallow harvest increased suitable conditions for Sphagnum establishment. • Deep harvest lowers the risk of subsequent peat ignition. • Deep harvest likely to promote longer-term carbon sequestration due to fewer fires. Peatland disturbances can disrupt the ecohydrological functions that sustain net carbon sequestration in peatlands. Anthropogenic disturbances, such as peatland drainage and harvesting, are often followed by peatland restoration that aims to return the carbon sink function. This is typically achieved by raising the water table and re-establishing keystone Sphagnum moss species. However, with an increasingly uncertain climate and intensifying land-use changes, the potential for multiple disturbances (such as co-occurring wildfires, drainage, and harvesting) to disrupt the ecohydrological feedbacks that support peatland function is increasing. Yet, few studies investigate the ecohydrological trade-offs induced by multiple disturbances in peatlands. To elucidate the complexities of multiple disturbances and restoration on Sphagnum re-establishment and wildfire potential, we studied a Deep and Shallow harvested area in a drained and restored peatland in southern Ontario, Canada that experienced a wildfire in 2012. Harvesting depth did not significantly increase the bulk density of the upper 32 cm of exposed peat, but the shallower harvest depth did significantly increase the depth of burn (DOB) due to the more varied remnant topography. The difference in topography of the shallower harvested area increased peat carbon losses (16.5 kg C m −2 ) from the wildfire relative to the deeper harvest area (15.1 kg C m −2 ). The difference in post-fire peat hydrophysical properties of the Deep and Shallow harvest area drove divergent soil water conditions. In the post-burn peat, the establishment of suitable conditions for the regeneration of Sphagnum mosses was more prevalent at the Shallow harvest areas but the higher soil water retention capabilities of the Deep harvest peat lowered the risk of subsequent peat ignition. This study highlights the complex interactions multiple disturbances have on peatland ecohydrology and that we urgently need to understand these interactions to better manage our shared peatland resources in an increasingly uncertain future.

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Mapping smouldering fire potential in boreal peatlands and assessing interactions with the wildland–human interface in Alberta, Canada
Sophie Wilkinson, Alexander K. Furukawa, B. M. Wotton, J. M. Waddington
International Journal of Wildland Fire, Volume 30, Issue 7

Treed peatlands exhibit both crown and smouldering fire potential; however, neither are included in Canadian wildfire management models and, as such, they are not formally represented in management decision-making. The lack of smouldering fire risk assessment is a critical research gap as these fires can represent heavy resource draws and are predominant sources of smoke, air pollutants and atmospheric carbon. Here, for the first time, we combine existing knowledge of the controls on smouldering peat fire with expert opinion-based weightings through a multi-criteria decision analysis, to map the smouldering fire potential (i.e. hazard) of treed peatlands in the Boreal Plains, Alberta, Canada. We find that smouldering potential varies considerably between treed peatlands and that areas of sparser peatland coverage may contain high smouldering-potential peatlands. Further, we find that treed peatlands are a common feature in the wildland–human interface and that proportionally, the area of high smouldering potential is greater closer to roads compared with farther away. Our approach enables a quantitative measure of smouldering fire potential and evidences the need to incorporate peatland–wildfire interactions into wildfire management operations. We suggest that similar frameworks could be used in other peatland dominated regions as part of smouldering fire risk assessments.


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A new flow for Canadian young hydrologists: Key scientific challenges addressed by research cultural shifts
Caroline Aubry‐Wake, Lauren Somers, Hayley Alcock, A. M. Anderson, Amin Azarkhish, Samuel Bansah, Nicole M. Bell, Kelly Biagi, Mariana Castañeda-González, Olivier Champagne, Anna Chesnokova, Devin Coone, Thierry Gauthier, Uttam Ghimire, Nathan Glas, Dylan M. Hrach, Oi Yin Lai, Pierrick Lamontagne‐Hallé, Nicolas Leroux, Laura Lyon, Sohom Mandal, Bouchra Nasri, Nataša Popović, Tracy Rankin, Kabir Rasouli, Alexis L. Robinson, Palash Sanyal, Nadine J. Shatilla, Brandon Van Huizen, Sophie Wilkinson, Jessica Williamson, Majid Zaremehrjardy
Hydrological Processes, Volume 34, Issue 8

A new flow for Canadian young hydrologists: Key scientific challenges addressed by research cultural shiftsCaroline Aubry-Wake1, Lauren D. Somers2,3, Hayley Alcock4, Aspen M. Anderson5, Amin Azarkhish6, Samuel Bansah7, Nicole M. Bell8, Kelly Biagi9, Mariana Castaneda-Gonzalez10, Olivier Champagne9, Anna Chesnokova10, Devin Coone6, Tasha-Leigh J. Gauthier11, Uttam Ghimire6, Nathan Glas6, Dylan M. Hrach11, Oi Yin Lai14, Pierrick Lamontagne-Halle3, Nicolas R. Leroux1, Laura Lyon3, Sohom Mandal12, Bouchra R. Nasri13, Natasa Popovic11, Tracy. E. Rankin14, Kabir Rasouli15, Alexis Robinson16, Palash Sanyal17, Nadine J. Shatilla9, 18, Brandon Van Huizen11, Sophie Wilkinson9, Jessica Williamson11, Majid Zaremehrjardy191 Centre for Hydrology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK, Canada2 Civil and Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA, USA3 Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill University, Montreal QC4 Department of Natural Resource Science, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada5 Department of Earth Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada6 School of Engineering, University of Guelph, Ontario, ON, Canada7 Department of Geological Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada8 Centre for Water Resources Studies, Department of Civil & Resource Engineering, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada9 School of Geography and Earth Sciences, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada.10 Department of Construction Engineering, Ecole de technologie superieure, Montreal, QC, Canada11 Department of Geography & Environmental Management, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada12 Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Ryerson University, Toronto, ON, Canada13 Department of Mathematics and Statistics, McGill University, Montreal, Qc, Canada14 Geography Department, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada15 Meteorological Service of Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Dorval, QC, Canada16 Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON17 Global Institute for Water Security, University of Saskatchewan.18 Lorax Environmental Services Ltd, Vancouver, BC, Canada.19 Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada

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Seismic Lines in Treed Boreal Peatlands as Analogs for Wildfire Fuel Modification Treatments
Patrick Jeffrey Deane, Sophie Wilkinson, Paul A. Moore, J. M. Waddington
Fire, Volume 3, Issue 2

Across the Boreal, there is an expansive wildland–society interface (WSI), where communities, infrastructure, and industry border natural ecosystems, exposing them to the impacts of natural disturbances, such as wildfire. Treed peatlands have previously received little attention with regard to wildfire management; however, their role in fire spread, and the contribution of peat smouldering to dangerous air pollution, have recently been highlighted. To help develop effective wildfire management techniques in treed peatlands, we use seismic line disturbance as an analog for peatland fuel modification treatments. To delineate below-ground hydrocarbon resources using seismic waves, seismic lines are created by removing above-ground (canopy) fuels using heavy machinery, forming linear disturbances through some treed peatlands. We found significant differences in moisture content and peat bulk density with depth between seismic line and undisturbed plots, where smouldering combustion potential was lower in seismic lines. Sphagnum mosses dominated seismic lines and canopy fuel load was reduced for up to 55 years compared to undisturbed peatlands. Sphagnum mosses had significantly lower smouldering potential than feather mosses (that dominate mature, undisturbed peatlands) in a laboratory drying experiment, suggesting that fuel modification treatments following a strategy based on seismic line analogs would be effective at reducing smouldering potential at the WSI, especially under increasing fire weather.

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Shallow peat is most vulnerable to high peat burn severity during wildfire
Sophie Wilkinson, Alex M. Tekatch, Chantel E. Markle, Paul A. Moore, J. M. Waddington
Environmental Research Letters, Volume 15, Issue 10

Abstract Peatlands typically act as carbon sinks, however, increasing wildfire severity and annual area burned may challenge this carbon sink status. Whilst most peat resistance to wildfire and drought research is based on deep peatlands that rarely lose their water table below the peat profile, shallow peatlands and peat deposits may be most vulnerable to high peat burn severity and extensive carbon loss. To examine the role of pre-fire peat depth on peat burn severity, we measured the depth of burn (DOB) in peat of varying depths (0.1–1.6 m) within a rock barrens landscape. We found that DOB (0–0.4 m) decreased with increasing pre-fire peat depth, and that there was a strong correlation between the percent of the profile that burned and pre-fire peat depth. Breakpoint analysis indicates a threshold depth of 0.66 m where deeper peat deposits experienced little impact of wildfire, whereas shallower peat typically experienced high peat burn severity (median percent burned = 2.2 and 65.1, respectively). This threshold also corresponded to the loss of the water table in some nearby unburned peatlands, where water table drawdown rates were greater in shallower peat. We suggest that peat depth may control peat burn severity through feedbacks that regulate water table drawdown. As such, we argue that the identification of a critical peat depth threshold could have important implications for wildfire management and peatland restoration aiming to protect vulnerable carbon stores.


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Postfire Soil Carbon Accumulation Does Not Recover Boreal Peatland Combustion Loss in Some Hydrogeological Settings
Rebekah Ingram, Paul A. Moore, Sophie Wilkinson, Richard M. Petrone, J. M. Waddington
Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, Volume 124, Issue 4

Deep peat burning at the interface between subhumid Boreal Plains (BP) peatlands and forestlands (margin ecotones) in some hydrogeological settings has brought into question the long‐term stability of these peatlands under current and future predicted climate. Small peatlands located at midtopographic positions on coarse sediments have been identified as hot spots for severe burning, as these peatland margins are not regularly connected to regional groundwater flow. The ability of these peatland systems to recover carbon lost from both the interior and margin within the fire return interval, however, has not yet been investigated. Here we examine peatland soil carbon accumulation along a chronosequence of time since fire for 26 BP ombrotrophic bogs located across a range of hydrogeological settings. Soil organic carbon accumulation following wildfire does not appear to be influenced by hydrogeological setting; however, the ability of a peatland to recover the quantity of carbon lost within the fire return interval is dependent on the amount of carbon that was released through smoldering, which is influenced by hydrogeological setting for peatland margins. Based on published measurements of organic soil carbon loss during wildfire and our soil carbon accumulation rates, we suggest that peatlands located at topographic lows on coarse‐grained glaciofluvial outwash sediments or on low‐relief, fine‐grained sediment deposits from glaciolacustrine or subglacial paleoenvironments are currently resilient to wildfire on the BP landscape. Peatlands that experience severe smoldering at the margins, such as ephemerally perched systems on glaciofluvial outwash sediments, will likely undergo permanent loss of legacy carbon stores.

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Assessing Drivers of Cross-Scale Variability in Peat Smoldering Combustion Vulnerability in Forested Boreal Peatlands
Sophie Wilkinson, Paul A. Moore, J. M. Waddington
Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, Volume 2

Wildfire represents the largest areal disturbance of forested boreal peatlands and the spatial variability in the severity of these peat fires is both a leading source of uncertainty in boreal wildfire carbon emissions and a major challenge for regional wildfire management. Peat smouldering can emit large quantities of carbon and smoke to the atmosphere, and therefore can contribute to hazardous air quality. The wildland-industry interface and wildland-urban interface are both extensive across the sub-humid boreal plains (BP) ecozone where one-third of the area is covered by peatlands. As such, there is a growing research need to identify drivers of variability in smouldering combustion. This study uses hydrophysical peat properties to assess the drivers of cross-scale variability in peat smouldering combustion vulnerability in forested peatlands across the BP. Using a space-for-time chronosequence across the 120-year fire return interval and three main hydrogeological settings, and by incorporating hummock, hollow and margin locations, cross-scale variability is studied. We find that, based on peat properties such as specific yield (Sy) and gravimetric water content, forested peatland margins represent areas of high peat smouldering vulnerability, and that this is exacerbated with an increasing time-since-fire (stand-age). Although increasing Sy with time-since-fire in peatland middles may buffer water table drawdown, when accounting for increases in canopy fuel load, transpiration, and feather moss dominance forested peatland middles also become more vulnerable to smouldering combustion with time-since-fire. Moreover, the interaction of peatland margins with coarse- and heterogeneous-grained hydrogeological settings leads to lower Sy and higher density margin peat than in fine-grained settings, further increasing smouldering vulnerability. We estimate that forested peatland margins are vulnerable to combustion throughout their entire profile i.e. burn-out, under moderate-high water deficits in the BP. Furthermore, we identify peatland margin: total area ratio as a driver of smouldering vulnerability where small peatlands that are periodically disconnected from regional groundwater systems are the most vulnerable to high total peat carbon loss. We suggest that these drivers of cross-scale variability should be incorporated into peatland and wildfire management strategies, especially in areas near the wildland-industry and wildland-urban interface.

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Threshold peat burn severity breaks evaporation‐limiting feedback
Sophie Wilkinson, Gregory J. Verkaik, Paul A. Moore, J. M. Waddington
Ecohydrology, Volume 13, Issue 1

A suite of autogenic ecohydrological feedbacks and moss traits are important for protecting vast peatland carbon stocks following wildfire disturbance. Here, we examine how peat burn severity and water table depth (WTD) affect the strength of one such feedback—the hydrophobicity–evaporation feedback (HEF). The HEF is an evaporation‐limiting feedback known to minimize water loss following wildfire. The peatland surface becomes hydrophobic creating an evaporative cap and thereby reducing post‐fire evaporation; however, recent studies hypothesize that this is dependent on peat burn severity. To test this hypothesis, we studied plots along a peat burn severity gradient in a partially drained black spruce peatland that burned during the 2016 Fort McMurray Horse River wildfire. Evaporation rates were significantly lower in plots where hydrophobicity was present. Hydrophobicity was lowest in the severely burned area, and the average instantaneous evaporation rate (2.75 mm day−1) was significantly higher than moderately and typical‐lightly burned areas (0.82 and 1.64 mm day−1, respectively). Based on lab results, increasing WTD affected hydrophobicity within lightly burned (singed) feather moss samples but not in heavily burned feather moss, showing the importance of post‐fire ground cover and in situ WTD. Our results provide evidence of a burn severity threshold where increased depth of burn removes the feather moss evaporative cap and causes the HEF to break down. We argue that this threshold has important implications for boreal peatlands, which are predicted to undergo climate‐mediated pre‐fire drying and increasing burn severities, potentially leading to further carbon losses due to enhanced post‐fire drying and concomitant decomposition.


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Delineating boreal plains bog margin ecotones across hydrogeological settings for wildfire risk management
Kristyn M. Mayner, Paul A. Moore, Sophie Wilkinson, Richard M. Petrone, J. M. Waddington
Wetlands Ecology and Management, Volume 26, Issue 6

Canada’s Boreal Plains peatland vegetation species assemblages are characterized by their functional ecosystem roles and feedbacks, which are important for carbon and water storage in a sub-humid climate. The vegetation communities at the peatland-upland interface, or the peatland margin ecotone, have not been extensively delineated or characterized as a distinct ecotone. Because these ecotones constitute a smouldering “hotspot” during wildfire, with carbon loss from these margins accounting for 50–90% of total peatland carbon loss, their delineation is critical. Post-fire, areas of severe peat smouldering have previously been shown to undergo shifts in vegetation community composition, resulting in a loss of key peatland ecohydrological functions. The aim of this study was to delineate Boreal Plains peatland margin ecotones and assess their prevalence across the landscape. Using split moving window analysis on vegetation transect data from a chronosequence of study sites, the margin ecotones were delineated at sites having different times since fire. No significant differences were identified in margin width over time or margin peat depths across hydrogeological settings. However, with peat depths of up to 2.46 m in small peatlands characteristic of moraine and glaciofluvial deposits, vulnerable margin peat has been demonstrated to represent a significant carbon store. Fire managers employing peatland fuel treatments for wildfire abatement and community protection should consider these confined peatlands more carefully to mitigate catastrophic carbon losses. Further, we suggest that a greater understanding is needed of the roles of peatland margin ecotones in sustaining peatland autogenic feedback mechanisms that promote paludification and recovery following wildfire.

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The effects of black spruce fuel management on surface fuel condition and peat burn severity in an experimental fire
Sophie Wilkinson, Paul A. Moore, Dan K. Thompson, B. M. Wotton, Steven Hvenegaard, Dave Schroeder, J. M. Waddington
Canadian Journal of Forest Research, Volume 48, Issue 12

In the boreal plains ecozone, black spruce (Picea mariana (Mill.) Britton, Sterns & Poggenb.) peatlands can represent large parts of the expanding wildland–urban interface (WUI) and wildland–indust...

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Did enhanced afforestation cause high severity peat burn in the Fort McMurray Horse River wildfire?
Sophie Wilkinson, Paul A. Moore, Mike D. Flannigan, B. M. Wotton, J. M. Waddington
Environmental Research Letters, Volume 13, Issue 1

Climate change mediated drying of boreal peatlands is expected to enhance peatland afforestation and wildfire vulnerability. The water table depth–afforestation feedback represents a positive feedback that can enhance peat drying and consolidation and thereby increase peat burn severity; exacerbating the challenges and costs of wildfire suppression efforts and potentially shifting the peatland to a persistent source of atmospheric carbon. To address this wildfire management challenge, we examined burn severity across a gradient of drying in a black spruce dominated peatland that was partially drained in 1975−1980 and burned in the 2016 Fort McMurray Horse River wildfire. We found that post-drainage black spruce annual ring width increased substantially with intense drainage. Average (±SD) basal diameter was 2.6 ± 1.2 cm, 3.2 ± 2.0 cm and 7.9 ± 4.7 cm in undrained (UD), moderately drained (MD) and heavily drained (HD) treatments, respectively. Depth of burn was significantly different between treatments (p < 0.001) and averaged (±SD) 2.5 ± 3.5 cm, 6.4 ± 5.0 cm and 36.9 ± 29.6 cm for the UD, MD and HD treatments, respectively. The high burn severity in the HD treatment included 38% of the treatment that experienced combustion of the entire peat profile, and we estimate that overall 51% of the HD pre-burn peat carbon stock was lost. We argue that the HD treatment surpassed an ecohydrological tipping point to high severity peat burn that may be identified using black spruce stand characteristics in boreal plains bogs. While further studies are needed, we believe that quantifying this threshold will aid in developing effective adaptive management techniques and protecting boreal peatland carbon stocks.