RECOUP-Moor: Restoring Ecosystem CarbOn Uptake of Post-fire Moorland

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Sch of Biological Sciences

Abstract

Northern peatlands are important terrestrial carbon (C) stores; they are estimated to store one-sixth of the global soil carbon stock in the form of slowly accumulated non-decomposed plant material, peat. The production of decay-resistant plant litter, in combination with constrained microbial metabolic activity, has resulted in peatlands being long-term C sinks. However, disturbances such as wildfires can damage this natural carbon sink, and lead to long-term negative impacts on the range of habitats and water-resource qualities of peatlands. Recently, in a period of less than two weeks, the Saddleworth Moor wildfire has consumed 1000 ha of peatland that contained a substantial amount of carbon. This carbon, previously locked away in the peatland, has re-entered the atmosphere where it directly contributes to global warming. The effects of the fire ripple further into the future as the wildfire has eradicated the plant and, most likely, the microbial community, which together play a central role in building up the soil carbon stock in the peatland. Given these impacts, and to limit the detrimental effects of the fire beyond the direct loss of a significant carbon pool, it is important to rapidly re-initiate the carbon uptake functions of post-fire peatlands, and restore this ecosystem to a pre-fire state.

A previous study on former agricultural soils (Wubs et al. 2016; Nature Plants 2:16107) has shown that the restoration of pre-agricultural plant communities can be accelerated using microbial inoculates from soils taken from natural target communities nearby. If these findings are universal, inoculation of post-fire peatlands with microbial communities from natural peatland habitats can be used to speed up the recovery of the plant community, and even steer trajectories of re-vegetation to plant communities that have previously been lost (e.g. peat moss dominated communities in the Peak district). Peat soil inoculation may thus accelerate the recovery of ecosystem processes that underpin the carbon sink function of peatlands.

RECOUP-Moor will explore the impacts of fire, and the role of soil inoculates in recovery, aiming to answer the following questions:
1. How has wildfire impacted on peatland microbial life?
Here, we will identify the immediate effect of the fire on the composition of the plant and microbial communities and how the fire with different intensities have affected microbial activity and ecosystem processes such as carbon dioxide assimilation, respiration, methanotrophy and methanogenesis, and the production of dissolved organic carbon.
2. Can we speed-up recovery of the peatland ecosystem using soil inoculates?
Our project will run an innovative and unprecedented experiment where we inoculate the post-fire peatland subjected to disparate fire intensities with peat microbial inoculates from adjacent intact (i.e. unburned) peatlands to test whether such restoration actions can speed-up the recovery of the ecosystem, with emphasis on carbon-related processes.

This research project, RECOUP-Moor, will bring a breakthrough solution to practitioners, as it will provide essential knowledge on the effectiveness of soil inoculates as a restoration technique that targets the rapid recovery of carbon sequestering vegetation after severe disturbance. Testing the application of this new 'restoration toolbox' will allow land managers, conservation bodies, and policy makers to direct restoration after disturbance, and also aid in general restoration of degraded peatlands. This will benefit habitat creation, and climate-change mitigation and water-resource management through improving the quality of peatland ecosystems.

Planned Impact

One of the most important services undertaken by ecosystems is regulation of organic carbon (C) turnover, and this is particularly the case for peatlands, which store large amount of the world's terrestrial C. Peatlands also support many important plant and animal species and as such are often an integral part of governmental conservation policies, which is underpinned by the recent commitment by DEFRA to inject £10m in peatland restoration projects, through the UK Government flagship 25-year Environment Plan. The Saddleworth Moor fire has consumed a substantial part of the carbon stock which directly contributes the the greenhouse gas effect. The effects of the fire, however, ripple far into the future as it has eradicated much of the plant and microbial communities that underpin processes that are key to the carbon uptake function of peatlands. Therefore, it is important that ecosystem processes are restored as fast as possible. Current practices take a long time. Here, we propose that post-fire inoculation with microbial communities from intact peatlands can initiate succession and speed-up the recovery of ecosystem processes.

This project exclusively focuses on assessing the status of the microbial community and its activity immediately after the fire, and to provide a tool to speed up the recovery of natural processes in fire-impacted peatlands. Pristine peatlands support a number of threatened and rare species. Most importantly, peatlands are long-term sinks of atmospheric carbon. Peatlands, however, have a history of exploitation (a threat that continues to exist). They are sensitive to global change, underpinned by observation that peatland more regularly become sources of carbon due to drought and wildfire. As a result, there is considerable interest from end-users across the EU in peatland conservation and restoration. This project will directly address the need for cost-effective solutions to minimize the negative impact of extreme event on the long-tem carbon sink function of peatlands, because it explicitly seeks to investigate if a restoration tool -soil inoculation-, that has been proven to expedite nature restoration on agricultural soil, can be used to speed up ecosystem function-oriented restoration. In doing so, it potentially contributes to the policy development. It will provide valuable information for the further development of the IUCN Peatland Code that sets out best practise requirements for offsetting C emissions by peatland conservation and restoration.

This proposal will generate a crucial insight into the role microbial inoculates on the restoration of globally important ecosystems that contain the world's largest single reserve of carbon. The project is highly interdisciplinary, and will combine expertise in peatland plant and microbial ecology, soil ecology and restoration. Moreover, the results of the proposed research will be of utmost relevance for conservationists and land managers seeking novel tools for ecosystem restoration. To expedite the application of our research, we will actively engage with stakeholders in the UK through our partner: the Moors of the Future partnership (MotF).

To achieve impact we will engage with outreach activities though the Public Engagement with Research team at the UoS. The support of the MotF is key to disseminate the results from our work to the general audience by publishing in the periodical magazines of one of the partners (f.e RSPB or National Trust. The involvement of the MotF will also bring us in direct contact with policymakers (Natural England, Environment Agency).

We will create video material of our work in collaboration with the Digital Learning team. This material can be use in outreach activities and in teaching and will be a key output to showcase our work.

Publications

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