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Carbon Sequestration in Peatlands: Using Environmental Proxies to Understand the Impact of a Changing Climate on Global Carbon Storage

Peatlands are a type of terrestrial wetland ecosystem in which consistently water-logged conditions prevent decomposition, allowing for sequestered carbon in plant matter to remain stored in the soil. Because of this, peatlands have great carbon sequestration potential, storing more carbon in the soil than all other vegetation types in the world combined. By inhibiting decomposition, the composition of water-rich peat soil remains representative of the environmental conditions during the period in which the peat was formed. The collected peat samples can then be utilized as environmental proxies to determine historical temperature, moisture, and carbon content, and extrapolated to predict the future capacity of carbon sequestration in the context of a changing climate.

The peat samples in this research were collected during the fall of 2022 in the Echo Lake Fen of Grand Mesa, Colorado and analyzed using humification analysis. This process measures the organic content of the peat, which can then be compared to the known historical climatic conditions during each 10-year period of peat accumulation. Results suggest that warmer climates lower the water table of a peatland and expose plant matter to oxygen, allowing plants to decay and release carbon into the atmosphere. Understanding that carbon, as a greenhouse gas, exacerbates already rising global temperatures and increases the rate of plant decomposition is important to predicting how the loss of peatlands would impact future climate conditions. Peat soils contain more than 600 gigatons of carbon worldwide which represents up to 44% of all soil carbon, making it essential that efforts to preserve and restore peatlands are prioritized in order to minimize the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.