Carbon dynamics in peatlands under changing hydrology: Effects of water level drawdown on litter quality, microbial enzyme activities and litter decomposition rates

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisCollection of Articles


Pristine peatlands are carbon (C) accumulating wetland ecosystems sustained by a high water level (WL) and consequent anoxia that slows down decomposition. Persistent WL drawdown as a response to climate and/or land-use change directly affects decomposition: increased oxygenation stimulates decomposition of the “old C” (peat) sequestered under prior anoxic conditions. Responses of the “new C” (plant litter) in terms of quality, production and decomposability, and the consequences for the whole C cycle of peatlands are not fully understood. WL drawdown induces changes in plant community resulting in shift in dominance from Sphagnum and graminoids to shrubs and trees. There is increasing evidence that the indirect effects of WL drawdown via the changes in plant communities will have more impact on the ecosystem C cycling than any direct effects.

The aim of this study is to disentangle the direct and indirect effects of WL drawdown on the “new C” by measuring the relative importance of 1) environmental parameters (WL depth, temperature, soil chemistry) and 2) plant community composition on litter production, microbial activity, litter decomposition rates and, consequently, on the C accumulation. This information is crucial for modelling C cycle under changing climate and/or land-use. The effects of WL drawdown were tested in a large-scale experiment with manipulated WL at two time scales and three nutrient regimes. Furthermore, the effect of climate on litter decomposability was tested along a north-south gradient. Additionally, a novel method for estimating litter chemical quality and decomposability was explored by combining Near infrared spectroscopy with multivariate modelling.

WL drawdown had direct effects on litter quality, microbial community composition and activity and litter decomposition rates. However, the direct effects of WL drawdown were overruled by the indirect effects via changes in litter type composition and production. Short-term (years) responses to WL drawdown were small. In long-term (decades), dramatically increased litter inputs resulted in large accumulation of organic matter in spite of increased decomposition rates. Further, the quality of the accumulated matter greatly changed from that accumulated in pristine conditions. The response of a peatland ecosystem to persistent WL drawdown was more pronounced at sites with more nutrients.

The study demonstrates that the shift in vegetation composition as a response to climate and/or land-use change is the main factor affecting peatland ecosystem C cycle and thus dynamic vegetation is a necessity in any models applied for estimating responses of C fluxes to changes in the environment. The time scale for vegetation changes caused by hydrological changes needs to extend to decades. This study provides grouping of litter types (plant species and part) into functional types based on their chemical quality and/or decomposability that the models could utilize. Further, the results clearly show a drop in soil temperature as a response to WL drawdown when an initially open peatland converts into a forest ecosystem, which has not yet been considered in the existing models.
Original languageEnglish
Print ISBNs978-951-651-313-6
Electronic ISBNs978-951-651-314-3
Publication statusPublished - 2010
MoE publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (article)

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