Biogeochemical indicators of peatland degradation – a case study of a temperate bog in northern Germany
Abstract. Organic soils in peatlands store a great proportion of the global soil carbon pool and can lose carbon via the atmosphere due to degradation. In Germany, most of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from organic soils are attributed to sites managed as grassland. Here, we investigated a land use gradient from near-natural wetland (NW) to an extensively managed (GE) to an intensively managed grassland site (GI), all formed in the same bog complex in northern Germany. Vertical depth profiles of δ13C, δ15N, ash content, C / N ratio and bulk density as well as radiocarbon ages were studied to identify peat degradation and to calculate carbon loss. At all sites, including the near-natural site, δ13C depth profiles indicate aerobic decomposition in the upper horizons. Depth profiles of δ15N differed significantly between sites with increasing δ15N values in the top soil layers paralleling an increase in land use intensity owing to differences in peat decomposition and fertilizer application. At both grassland sites, the ash content peaked within the first centimetres. In the near-natural site, ash contents were highest in 10–60 cm depth. The ash profiles, not only at the managed grassland sites, but also at the near-natural site indicate that all sites were influenced by anthropogenic activities either currently or in the past, most likely due to drainage. Based on the enrichment of ash content and changes in bulk density, we calculated the total carbon loss from the sites since the peatland was influenced by anthropogenic activities. Carbon loss at the sites increased in the following order: NW < GE < GI. Radiocarbon ages of peat in the topsoil of GE and GI were hundreds of years, indicating the loss of younger peat material. In contrast, peat in the first centimetres of the NW was only a few decades old, indicating recent peat growth. It is likely that the NW site accumulates carbon today but was perturbed by anthropogenic activities in the past. Together, all biogeochemical parameters indicate a degradation of peat due to (i) conversion to grassland with historical drainage and (ii) land use intensification.