Peat consumption and carbon loss due to smouldering wildfire in a temperate peatland

Davies, G. Matt; Gray, Alan; Rein, Guillermo; Legg, Colin J.. 2013 Peat consumption and carbon loss due to smouldering wildfire in a temperate peatland. Forest Ecology and Management, 308. 169-177.

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Temperate peatlands represent a substantial store of carbon and their degradation is a potentially significant positive feedback to climate change. The ignition of peat deposits can cause smouldering wildfires that have the potential to release substantial amounts of carbon and to cause environmental damage from which ecosystem recovery can be slow. Direct estimates of the loss of carbon due to smouldering wildfires are needed to inform global estimates of the effect of wildfire on carbon dynamics and to aid with national emissions accounting. We surveyed the effect of a severe wildfire that burnt within an afforested peatland in the Scottish Highlands during the summer of 2006. The fire ignited layers of peat which continued to burn as a sub-surface smouldering wildfire for more than a month after the initial surface fire and despite several episodes of heavy rain. The smouldering fire perimeter enclosed an area of 4.1 ha. Analysis of weather records showed that the fire coincided with unusually warm, dry conditions and a period when the Canadian Fire Weather Index system predicted both generally high danger conditions (high Fire Weather Index) and low fuel moisture content in deep organic soil layers (high Drought Code values). Remaining peat layers in the burn area had comparatively low fuel moisture contents of ca. 250% dry weight. Within the smouldering fire’s perimeter, mean depth of burn was estimated at 17.5 ± 2.0 cm but ranged from 1 to 54 cm. Based on field measurements, our estimates suggested that, in total, the smouldering wildfire burnt 773 ± 120 t of organic matter corresponding to 396 ± 63 t of carbon and a carbon loss per unit area burnt of 96 ± 15 t ha−1 (9.6 ± 1.5 kg m−2). This corresponds to between 0.1% and 0.3% of the estimated total amount of carbon sequestered annually by UK peatlands. Our results also provide circumstantial evidence that afforestation of peatland soils, and associated site preparation, may contribute to an increased risk of peat fires. Smouldering fires are difficult to detect using remotely sensing techniques due to their low temperature and low heat release and the fact that the tree canopy remains intact for months afterwards. If similar smouldering fires are underreported in other temperate, boreal and tropical peatland regions then emissions from peatland burning may well be a substantially greater issue than currently assumed.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
Programmes: CEH Topics & Objectives 2009 - 2012 > Biodiversity
CEH Topics & Objectives 2009 - 2012 > Biogeochemistry
UKCEH and CEH Sections/Science Areas: Watt
ISSN: 0378-1127
Additional Keywords: Canadian Fire Weather Index system, carbon emissions, depth of burn, fire danger, fire severity, fuel consumption
NORA Subject Terms: Ecology and Environment
Atmospheric Sciences
Date made live: 03 Oct 2013 13:26 +0 (UTC)

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