Groundwater residence time distributions in peatlands: Implications for peat decomposition and accumulation

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Abstract

[1] Peat soils consist of poorly decomposed plant detritus, preserved by low decay rates, and deep peat deposits are globally significant stores in the carbon cycle. High water tables and low soil temperatures are commonly held to be the primary reasons for low peat decay rates. However, recent studies suggest a thermodynamic limit to peat decay, whereby the slow turnover of peat soil pore water may lead to high concentrations of phenols and dissolved inorganic carbon. In sufficient concentrations, these chemicals may slow or even halt microbial respiration, providing a negative feedback to peat decay. We document the analysis of a simple, one-dimensional theoretical model of peatland pore water residence time distributions (RTDs). The model suggests that broader, thicker peatlands may be more resilient to rapid decay caused by climate change because of slow pore water turnover in deep layers. Even shallow peat deposits may also be resilient to rapid decay if rainfall rates are low. However, the model suggests that even thick peatlands may be vulnerable to rapid decay under prolonged high rainfall rates, which may act to flush pore water with fresh rainwater. We also used the model to illustrate a particular limitation of the diplotelmic (i.e., acrotelm and catotelm) model of peatland structure. Model peatlands of contrasting hydraulic structure exhibited identical water tables but contrasting RTDs. These scenarios would be treated identically by diplotelmic models, although the thermodynamic limit suggests contrasting decay regimes. We therefore conclude that the diplotelmic model be discarded in favor of model schemes that consider continuous variation in peat properties and processes.

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