Northern and tropical peatlands represent a globally significant carbon reserve accumulated over thousands of years of waterlogged conditions. It is unclear whether moderate drying predicted for northern peatlands will stimulate burning and carbon losses as has occurred in their smaller tropical counterparts where the carbon legacy has been destabilized due to severe drainage and deep peat fires. Capitalizing on a unique long-term experiment, we quantify the post-wildfire recovery of a northern peatland subjected to decadal drainage. We show that the moderate drop in water table position predicted for most northern regions triggers a shift in vegetation composition previously observed within only severely disturbed tropical peatlands. The combined impact of moderate drainage followed by wildfire converted the low productivity, moss-dominated peatland to a non-carbon accumulating shrub-grass ecosystem. This new ecosystem is likely to experience a low intensity, high frequency wildfire regime, which will further deplete the legacy of stored peat carbon.
- Fire ecology