Skip to main content

Delineating boreal plains bog margin ecotones across hydrogeological settings for wildfire risk management


Canada’s Boreal Plains peatland vegetation species assemblages are characterized by their functional ecosystem roles and feedbacks, which are important for carbon and water storage in a sub-humid climate. The vegetation communities at the peatland-upland interface, or the peatland margin ecotone, have not been extensively delineated or characterized as a distinct ecotone. Because these ecotones constitute a smouldering “hotspot” during wildfire, with carbon loss from these margins accounting for 50–90% of total peatland carbon loss, their delineation is critical. Post-fire, areas of severe peat smouldering have previously been shown to undergo shifts in vegetation community composition, resulting in a loss of key peatland ecohydrological functions. The aim of this study was to delineate Boreal Plains peatland margin ecotones and assess their prevalence across the landscape. Using split moving window analysis on vegetation transect data from a chronosequence of study sites, the margin ecotones were delineated at sites having different times since fire. No significant differences were identified in margin width over time or margin peat depths across hydrogeological settings. However, with peat depths of up to 2.46 m in small peatlands characteristic of moraine and glaciofluvial deposits, vulnerable margin peat has been demonstrated to represent a significant carbon store. Fire managers employing peatland fuel treatments for wildfire abatement and community protection should consider these confined peatlands more carefully to mitigate catastrophic carbon losses. Further, we suggest that a greater understanding is needed of the roles of peatland margin ecotones in sustaining peatland autogenic feedback mechanisms that promote paludification and recovery following wildfire.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7


  • Bauer IE, Bhatti JS, Swanston C, Wieder RK, Preston CM (2009) Organic matter accumulation and community change at the peatland-upland interface: inferences from 14C and 210Pb dated profiles. Ecosystems 12:636–653

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Beckingham JD, Archibald JH (1996) Field guide to ecosites of northern Alberta. Canadian Forest Service, Northwest Region, Northern Forestry Centre, Edmonton, Alberta. Special Report 5

  • Berg EE, McDonnell Hillman K, Dial R, DeRuwe A (2009) Recent woody invasion of wetlands on the Kenai Peninsula lowlands, south-central Alaska: a major regime shift after 18,000 years of wet Sphagnum-sedge peat recruitment. Can J For Res 39:2033–2046

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bhatti J, Errington R, Bauer I, Hurdle P (2006) Carbon stock trends along forested peatland margins in central Saskatchewan. Can J Soil Sci 86:321–333

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Boughton EA, Quintana-Ascencio AF, Menges ES, Boughton RK (2006) Association of ecotones with relative elevation and fire in an upland Florida landscape. J Veg Sci 17:361–368

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Camarero JJ, Gutierrez E, Fortin M (2006) Spatial patterns of plant richness across treeline ecotones in the Pyrenees reveal different locations for richness and tree cover boundaries. Glob Ecol Biogeogr 15:182–191

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Canadian Forest Service (2011) National Fire Database – Agency FireData. Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, Northern Forestry Centre, Edmonton, Alberta.

  • Chasmer LE, Devito KJ, Hopkinson C, Petrone RM (2018) Remote sensing of ecosystem trajectories as a proxy-indicator for watershed water balance. Ecohydrology In Press (ECO-17-0160)

  • Choesin D, Boerner REJ (2002) Vegetation boundary detection: a comparison of two approaches applied to field data. Plant Ecol 158:85–96

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cornelius JM, Reynolds JF (1991) On determining the statistical significance of discontinuities within ordered ecological data. Ecology 72:2057–2070

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Devito KJ, Creed IF, Fraser C (2005) Controls on runoff from a partially harvested aspen forested headwater catchment, Boreal Plain, Canada. Hydrol Proc 19:23–25

    Google Scholar 

  • Devito KJ, Mendoza C, Qualizza C (2012) Conceptualizing water movement in the boreal plains: Implications for watershed reconstruction. Synthesis report prepared for the Canadian Oil Sands Network for Research and Development, Environmental and Reclamation Research Group. 164 pp

  • Dimitrov DD, Bhatti JS, Grant RF (2014) The transition zones (ecotone) between boreal forests and peatlands: modelling water table along a transition zone between upland black spruce forest and poor forested fen in central Saskatchewan. Ecol Model 274:57–70

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Erdos L, Batori Z, Tolgyesi CS, Kormoczi L (2014) The moving split window (MSW) analysis in vegetation science—an overview. Appl Ecol Environ Res 12:787–805

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fenton MM, Water EJ, Pawley SM, Atkinson N, Utting DJ, Mckay K (2013) Surficial geology of Alberta; Alberta Energy Regulator, AER/AGS Map 601, scale 1:1,000,000

  • Ferone JM, Devito KJ (2004) Shallow groundwater-surface water interactions in pond-peatland complexes along a Boreal Plains topographic gradient. J Hydrol 292:75–95

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Flannigan MD, Logan KA, Amiro BD, Skinner WR, Stocks BJ (2005) Future areas burned in Canada. Clim Change 72:1–16

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Flannigan MD, Cantin AS, de Groot WJ, Wotton M, Newbery A, Gowman LM (2013) Global wildland fire season severity in the 21st century. For Ecol Mgmt 294:54–6161

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Government of Alberta (2016) Air Photo Distribution Centre. Minister of Environment and Parks, Government of Alberta.

  • Hartshorn AS, Southard RJ, Bledsoe CS (2003) Structure and function of peatland-forest ecotones in southeastern Alaska. Soil Sci Soc Am J 67:1572–1581

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hokanson KJ, Lukenbach MC, Devito KJ, Kettridge N, Petrone RM, Waddington JM (2016) Groundwater connectivity controls peat burn severity in the boreal plains. Ecohydrol 9:574–584

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hokanson H, Moore PA, Lukenbach MC, Devito KJ, Kettridge N, Petrone RM, Mendoza CA, Waddington JM (2018) A hydrogeological landscape framework to identify peatland wildfire smouldering hotspots. Ecohydrol 11:e1942.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Howie SA, van Meerveld HJ (2013) Regional and local patterns in depth to water table, hydrochemistry and peat properties of bogs and their lags in coastal British Columbia. Hydrol Earth Sys Sci Disc 17:3421–3435

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kettridge N, Turetsky MR, Sherwood JH, Thompson DK, Miller CA, Benscoter BW, Flannigan MD, Wotton M, Waddington JM (2015) Moderate drop in water table increases peatland vulnerability to post-fire regime shift. Sci Rep 5:8063

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ludwig JA, Cornelius JM (1987) Locating discontinuities along ecological gradients. Ecology 68:448–450

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lukenbach MC, Hokanson KJ, Moore PA, Devito KJ, Kettridge N, Thompson DK, Wotton BM, Petrone RM, Waddington JM (2015) Hydrological controls on deep burning in a northern forested peatland. Hydrol Proc 29:4114–4124

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mulligan RC, Gignac LD (2001) Bryophyte community structure in a boreal poor fen: reciprocal transplants. Can J Bot 79:404–411

    Google Scholar 

  • Natural Regions Committee (2006) Natural Regions and Subregions of Alberta. Compiled by Downing DJ, Pettapiece WW. Government of Alberta. Pub. No. T/852

  • Paradis E, Rochefort L, Langlois M (2015) The lagg ecotone: an integrative part of bog systems in North America. Plant Ecol 216:999–1018

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pellerin S, Lagneau LA, Lavoie M, Larocque M (2009) Environmental factors explaining the vegetation patterns in a temperate peatland. CR Biol 332:720–731

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Petrone RM, Silins U, Devito KJ (2007) Dynamics of evapotranspiration from a riparian pond complex in the Western Boreal Forest, Alberta, Canada. Hydrol Proc 21:1391–1401

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • R Core Team. 2016. R: a language and environment for statistical computing. Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. Accessed Sept 2016

  • Reineke LH (1933) Perfecting a stand density index for even-aged forests. J Ag Res 46:627–638

    Google Scholar 

  • Riddell J (2008) Assessment of surface water-groundwater interaction at perched boreal wetlands, north-central Alberta. M.Sc. Thesis, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Alberta. 106p

  • Thompson DK, Simpson BN, Beaudoin A (2016) Using forest structure to predict the distribution of tree boreal peatlands in Canada. For Ecol Manage 372:19–27

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Turetsky MR, Amiro BD, Bosch E, Bhatti JS (2004) Historical burn area in western Canadian peatlands and its relationship to fire weather indices. Global Biogeochem Cycles 18:GB4014

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Waddington JM, Morris PJ, Kettridge N, Granath G, Thompson DK, Moore PA (2015) Hydrological feedbacks in northern peatlands. Ecohydrol 8:113–127

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Warner BG, Rubec CDA (1997) The Canadian wetland classification system, 2nd edn. Wetlands Research Centre, University of Waterloo, Waterloo

    Google Scholar 

  • Wieder PK, Scott KD, Kamminga K, Vile MA, Vitt DH, Bone T, Xu B, Benscoter BW, Bhatti JS (2009) Postfire carbon balance in boreal bogs of Alberta, Canada. Global Change Biol 15:63–81

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This research was funded by a NSERC CRD Grant and a Research Grant from Syncrude Canada Ltd. and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. We thank Rebekah Ingram, Cameron McCann, Kelly Biagi, Samantha Stead, Dylan Hrach and Kevin De Hann for assistance in the field and Craig Allison for assistance with GIS analysis. Data is available upon request by contacting the corresponding author.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to James M. Waddington.

Ethics declarations

This research was funded by a NSERC CRD Grant and a Research Grant from Syncrude Canada Ltd. and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Mayner, K.M., Moore, P.A., Wilkinson, S.L. et al. Delineating boreal plains bog margin ecotones across hydrogeological settings for wildfire risk management. Wetlands Ecol Manage 26, 1037–1046 (2018).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Peatland
  • Ecotone
  • Interface
  • Sphagnum
  • Feathermoss
  • Wildfire