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Anthropogenic impacts on lowland tropical peatland biogeochemistry

Abstract

Tropical peatlands store around one-sixth of the global peatland carbon pool (105 gigatonnes), equivalent to 30% of the carbon held in rainforest vegetation. Deforestation, drainage, fire and conversion to agricultural land threaten these ecosystems and their role in carbon sequestration. In this Review, we discuss the biogeochemistry of tropical peatlands and the impacts of ongoing anthropogenic modifications. Extensive peatlands are found in Southeast Asia, the Congo Basin and Amazonia, but their total global area remains unknown owing to inadequate data. Anthropogenic transformations result in high carbon loss and reduced carbon storage, increased greenhouse gas emissions, loss of hydrological integrity and peat subsidence accompanied by an enhanced risk of flooding. Moreover, the resulting nutrient storage and cycling changes necessitate fertilizer inputs to sustain crop production, further disturbing the ecosystem and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Under a warming climate, these impacts are likely to intensify, with both disturbed and intact peat swamps at risk of losing 20% of current carbon stocks by 2100. Improved measurement and observation of carbon pools and fluxes, along with process-based biogeochemical knowledge, is needed to support management strategies, protect tropical peatland carbon stocks and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

Key points

  • Tropical peatlands are important in terms of the global carbon cycle and in efforts to combat climate change, with a growing recognition of their potential role in natural climate solutions.

  • Tropical peatlands occupy approximately 440,000 km2 across Southeast Asia, Central Africa and South and Central America, and are mostly forested. They are among the world’s most carbon-dense ecosystems with a belowground carbon stock of about 105 gigatonnes (Gt).

  • Although tropical peatlands in Africa and in South and Central America remain largely intact, those in Southeast Asia have undergone widespread transformations owing to deforestation, drainage and agricultural conversion.

  • Land-use changes result in rapid peat carbon loss, high greenhouse gas emissions, land subsidence, changes in hydrology and nutrient cycling, and an increased risk of fire.

  • Management priorities include protection of the carbon sink function of intact forested peatlands; restoration of degraded, forested peatlands; and improved management of agricultural peatlands by raising water levels to mitigate carbon losses and greenhouse gas emissions.

  • The response of tropical peatlands and their carbon stocks to anthropogenic warming and associated changes in hydroclimate remain an area of uncertainty.

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Fig. 1: Global distribution of tropical peatlands.
Fig. 2: Biogeochemical cycling in tropical peatlands.
Fig. 3: Environmental and biogeochemical impacts of fires on tropical peatlands.
Fig. 4: Trade-offs between WTD, greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient supply for tropical peatlands.

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Acknowledgements

The authors wish to acknowledge the following research programmes and funding sources. S.P., C.D.E., S.S., S.E., G.A., A.J. and A.J.J.-S. were supported by the SUSTAINPEAT project (‘Overcoming barriers to sustainable livelihoods and environments in smallholder agricultural systems on tropical peatland’), funded by United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) via the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), grant number BB/P023533/1. The authors are grateful to the Ministry of Research Technology and Higher Education of Indonesia (RISTEKDIKTI) for their support of this project. S.P., G.D., I.A.S., A.J.J.-S. and S.S. were supported by the CongoPeat project, funded by UKRI via the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), grant number NE/R016860/1. C.D.E. received additional support from the SUNRISE project (‘Sustainable use of natural resources to improve human health and support economic development’) via NERC, grant number NE/R000131/1. J.J. was supported by the TROPDEC project (‘Tropical peat decomposition under land use change: adaptation to resources and conditions’) funded by the Academy of Finland, project identifier 310194.

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S.P. and C.D.E. devised the structure of the review and led the writing. S.M., A.L. and C.D.E. contributed both to the writing and to the design of the figures. All other authors contributed equally to the writing.

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Correspondence to Susan Page.

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Nature Reviews Earth & Environment thanks Lulie Melling, who co-reviewed with Faustina Sangok, Zicheng Yu and Massimo Lupascu for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Page, S., Mishra, S., Agus, F. et al. Anthropogenic impacts on lowland tropical peatland biogeochemistry. Nat Rev Earth Environ (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-022-00289-6

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