Mountain Peatlands Range from CO2 Sinks at High Elevations to Sources at Low Elevations: Implications for a Changing Climate
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Mountain fens found in western North America have sequestered atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) for millennia, provide important habitat for wildlife, and serve as refugia for regionally-rare plant species typically found in boreal regions. It is unclear how Rocky Mountain fens are responding to a changing climate. It is possible that fens found at lower elevations may be particularly susceptible to changes because hydrological cycles that control water tables are likely to vary the most. In this study, we fit models of growing season ecosystem-atmosphere CO2 exchange to field-measured data among eight fen plant communities at four mountain fens along a climatic gradient in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming. Differences in growing season net ecosystem production (NEP) among study sites were not well correlated with monsoon precipitation, despite a twofold increase in summer rainfall between two study regions. Our results show that NEP was higher for fens located at high elevations compared to those found at lower elevations, with growing season estimates ranging from −342 to 256 g CO2-C m−2. This was reflected in the negative correlation of growing season NEP with air temperature, and positive correlation with water table position, as the high elevation sites had the lowest air temperatures and highest water tables due to greater snowpack and later onset of melt. Our results suggest that sustainability of mountain fens occurring at the lower end of the known elevation range may be particularly susceptible to a changing climate, as these peatlands already experience lower snowpack, earlier snow melt, and warmer growing season air temperatures, which are all likely to be exacerbated under a future climate.
Keywordspeatland net ecosystem production mountain climate change carbon dioxide fen
We thank Drs. N.T. Hobbs and Phillip Chapman of Colorado State University for valuable assistance feedback on statistical analyses and model development. In addition, we thank the many students and field technicians whose contributions made this work possible. Funding for this study came from the United States Department of Agriculture––US Forest Service through the Rocky Mountain Research Station, in Fort Collins, Colorado. Data analyses and presentation were done using open-source R software including the rjags and ggplot2 package.
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