Holocene dynamics in subarctic peat plateaus of west-central Canada : Vegetation succession, peat accumulation and permafrost history
Abstract: Dynamics in vegetation, permafrost and peat and net carbon accumulation rates throughout the Holocene have been studied in two subarctic peat plateaus of west-central Canada through plant macrofossil analysis, geochemical analyses and AMS radiocarbon dating. Peatland formation at the studied sites began around 6600-5900 cal yr BP as a result of paludification of upland forests. Permafrost aggradation probably occurred 5600-4500 cal yr BP when Sphagnum fuscum became established and rootlet layers started to appear. Alternating layers of Sphagnum fuscum and rootlet peat throughout most of the peat profiles are indicating relatively dry surface conditions, suggesting that permafrost conditions have remained stable since the peat plateau stages were initiated. Local fires have occurred in the peatlands, but most fires did not cause degradation of the permafrost. However, lower peat and net carbon accumulation rates are recorded from rootlet layers containing charcoal. The long-term peat and net carbon accumulation rates for both studied peat profiles are 0,30-0,31 mm/yr and 12,5-12,7 gC/m2yr. Accumulation rates are variable depending on peat plateau stage. Peat accumulation rates are in general 4-5 times higher in S. fuscum than in rootlet stages, and net carbon accumulation rates are 3-4 times higher. Therefore even though Sphagnum peat makes up a majority of the peat profile depth, rootlet peat stages can represent most of the time since the peatland was initiated. The gross stratigraphy and plant macrofossil analyses show that there have been no wet phases, indicating permafrost collapse, since the peat plateau stages were initiated. This suggests that subarctic peat plateaus with alternating Sphagnum fuscum and rootlet peat layers have been acting as long-term net carbon sinks, accumulating carbon which has been incorporated into the permafrost, throughout most of the Holocene. High and stable carbon/nitrogen ratios throughout most of the profiles suggest that decomposition has not occurred in the perennially frozen peat. Since the peat plateaus are characterized by no decay in the permafrost and dry surface conditions, methane emissions are negligible from these ecosystems. In a future warmer climate carbon that has been stored under permafrost conditions can be remobilized. The warming may cause drier surface conditions resulting in increased emissions of carbon dioxide or, alternatively, permafrost collapse resulting in wetter surface conditions and increased methane emissions.
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