Time, Hydrologic Landscape, and the Long-Term Storage of Peatland Carbon in Sedimentary Basins

David J. Large, Chris Marshall, Malte Jochmann, Maria Jensen, Baruch F. Spiro, Snorre Olaussen

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Peatland carbon may enter long-term storage in sedimentary basins preserved as either coal or lignite. The time required to account for the carbon in 1–10 m thick coal seams must represent 105–106 years, an order of magnitude more than previously assumed. To understand the process by which this happens requires extrapolation of our understanding of peatland carbon accumulation over timescales that greatly exceed those of Holocene peat. We analyze the consequences of extrapolating peat growth to periods of 106 years. We deduce that that key to sustained peat growth are hydrologic landscapes that can maintain a saturated peat body above the level of clastic deposition. Contrary to current stratigraphic frameworks, we conclude that the generation of accommodation space at low rates of 0.1–0.2 mm/yr can adequately accommodate thick peat accumulation over periods >105 years. However, generation of accommodation space at rates >0.5 mm/yr cannot. The low rates that permit accommodation of thick peat are typical of the rates of subsidence in specific tectonic settings, particularly foreland basins, and this has implications for our understanding of the links between terrestrial carbon burial, tectonics and the carbon cycle. The long-term stability of extensive peatland required to form coal also requires sediment bypass, modifying basin wide sediment transport and deposition. Limits to peatland growth under very low accommodation rates must exist but the relative importance of the limiting process is not understood. Finally, we discuss the consequences of these factors for predicting the future of the peatland carbon reservoir.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2020JF005762
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 9 Feb 2021


  • carbon
  • hydrologic landscape
  • peat
  • sedimentary basin
  • time


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