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Overriding water table control on managed peatland greenhouse gas emissions

Abstract

Global peatlands store more carbon than is naturally present in the atmosphere1,2. However, many peatlands are under pressure from drainage-based agriculture, plantation development and fire, with the equivalent of around 3 per cent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases emitted from drained peatland3,4,5. Efforts to curb such emissions are intensifying through the conservation of undrained peatlands and re-wetting of drained systems6. Here we report eddy covariance data for carbon dioxide from 16 locations and static chamber measurements for methane from 41 locations in the UK and Ireland. We combine these with published data from sites across all major peatland biomes. We find that the mean annual effective water table depth (WTDe; that is, the average depth of the aerated peat layer) overrides all other ecosystem- and management-related controls on greenhouse gas fluxes. We estimate that every 10 centimetres of reduction in WTDe could reduce the net warming impact of CO2 and CH4 emissions (100-year global warming potentials) by the equivalent of at least 3 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year, until WTDe is less than 30 centimetres. Raising water levels further would continue to have a net cooling effect until WTDe is within 10 centimetres of the surface. Our results suggest that greenhouse gas emissions from peatlands drained for agriculture could be greatly reduced without necessarily halting their productive use. Halving WTDe in all drained agricultural peatlands, for example, could reduce emissions by the equivalent of over 1 per cent of global anthropogenic emissions.

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Fig. 1: Annual mean values of carbon dioxide and methane flux versus mean water table depth.

Data availability

The UK eddy covariance data set used in the study is available from the UK Environmental Information Data Centre (EIDC), with the identifier: https://doi.org/10.5285/b8c9fd3d-f9ea-4fd8-9557-9022884f711d. Summary and literature-derived data are included in Extended Data Tables 13.

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Acknowledgements

This study was supported by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (projects SP1210 and SP1218), with additional data provided from projects funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (SEFLOS, NE/P0140971/1 and UKSCAPE, NE/R016429/1), Scottish Government and Natural Resources Wales (NRW). UK flux sites were hosted by a range of organizations including G’s Fresh, the National Trust, NRW and the Balmoral Estate. We thank all those responsible for collecting the published data used in the study, in particular M. Strack, D. Holl, H. Keck and C. Deshmukh for providing additional data and information on individual studies, L. Menichetti for sharing peat mapping data and L. Barber at the University of Leicester for preparing the site maps.

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C.D.E. conceived and led the study, undertook the global upscaling and drafted the paper. R.M. coordinated eddy covariance measurements and led the analysis of eddy covariance data. M.P. and S.E.P. supported the global flux data synthesis. P.L. undertook additional statistical analysis. A.J.B. designed and oversaw the chamber flux CH4 measurement programme. J.H., R.P.G. and A.J.B. were responsible for the hydrological measurement programme. F.W. was responsible for site surveys. M.P., R.R.E.A., P.J.C., N.C., M.C., E.C., A.C., S.D., V.G., C.H., C.M.H., D.L.J., J.K., P.L., R.M., N.P.M., T.M., S.O., M.R., L.M.R., K.M.S., R.M. and F.W. were responsible for the management, operation and processing of data for one or more of the flux measurement sites. A.B., R.M., J.L.W. and H.M.C. were responsible for central data management and processing. All authors contributed to data analysis and interpretation, and commented on the draft manuscript.

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Correspondence to C. D. Evans.

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Competing interests

A number of the authors are on peatland advisory boards for the UK government, devolved governments and agencies, and for other public, private and charitable sector organizations. C.D.E. and S.E.P. are on the International Peatland Expert Working Group of Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd. S.E.P. is on the International Advisory Panel on Peatland Research for the Malaysian Palm Oil Board. J.H. is on the science advisory board for MS Amlin. None of the authors receive direct remuneration for any advisory roles undertaken or have any financial or non-financial interests in organizations that may be affected by the results of this study.

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Peer review information Nature thanks Dennis Baldocchi, Torben Christensen and Maria Strack for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Location and land-cover class of UK and Irish CO2 flux-tower sites analysed.

Sites are overlaid on the global peat map of Leifeld and Menichetti4. For detailed site information, see Extended Data Table 1.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Cumulative measured NEE and NEP (harvested sites only) for UK eddy covariance sites.

Positive values indicate net CO2 emission to the atmosphere, negative values indicate net CO2 uptake. Years with missing data at Anglesey 2 and Tadham Moor were assigned the average long-term NEP value for the site for presentational purposes only; these years were not used in the calculations.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Location and land-cover type of all study sites included in global CO2 flux data synthesis.

Sites are overlaid on the peat map of Leifeld and Menichetti4. For detailed site information, see Extended Data Table 2.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Observed relationship between mean CH4 flux and WTDe for British and Irish sites.

Results are compared with previous relationships derived from independent data in the United Kingdom (Levy et al.110), Continental Europe (Couwenberg et al.16), and North America and Fennoscandia (Turetsky et al.21).

Extended Data Fig. 5 Comparison of predicted and observed NEP versus WTDe for tropical peatlands.

Filled red circles show observations from six tropical peatland flux towers. Dashed line shows a linear regression fitted to these data points (NEP = 0.1887 WTDe – 3.19, R2 = 0.79, P = 0.017). Solid line shows relationship derived from high-latitude regression (equation (2)), scaled for tropical peatlands based on IPCC Tier 1 emission factors (see Methods).

Extended Data Table 1 Locations and characteristics of UK and Ireland study sites
Extended Data Table 2 Locations and characteristics of global CO2 flux synthesis sites
Extended Data Table 3 Locations and characteristics of UK and Irish sites used in CH4 flux synthesis
Extended Data Table 4 Area and emissions estimates for global peatlands under drained cropland and grassland
Extended Data Table 5 Disaggregated global emissions of CO2 and CH4 from drained cropland and grassland. a, CO2; b, CH4. Emissions are based on application of our empirical relationships to the global peat area estimates of Leifeld and Menichetti4 (Extended Data Table 4) and used to derive Table 1. Scenarios and calculations are as described in the Methods

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Evans, C.D., Peacock, M., Baird, A.J. et al. Overriding water table control on managed peatland greenhouse gas emissions. Nature 593, 548–552 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03523-1

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