School of Natural and Environmental Sciences

Geochemical control of organic matter turnover

Geochemical control of organic matter turnover in peatlands: long-term security or short-term vulnerability of a major carbon store?

Peatlands cover vast areas of the world - around four million square kilometres - and store about as much carbon as the living plants in tropical rainforests.

Project Leader: Dr. Geoff Abbott
Sponsors: NERC
Dr Lisa Belyea (Queen Mary College, London University); Dr. Greg Cowie (Edinburgh University)
Start/end dates:

Project Details

For the past 5,000-10,000 years, the plants living on peatlands have been fixing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it as dead plant matter - 'peat'.

In a future warmer and possibly drier climate, this stored carbon could be respired back to the atmosphere or leached into rivers.

Will increased temperatures and decreased rainfall lead to rapid loss of the peatland carbon store? If so, then the extra carbon released from peatlands could enhance 'greenhouse' warming further, leading to a runaway positive feedback on global climate.

Or will rapid climate change trigger a shift to peatland types that accumulate peat (and store carbon) at a faster rate than present-day peatlands? If the latter, then peatlands could buffer further climate change.


  • Swain E, Muhammad A, Belyea L, Laing C, Cowie G, Filley T, Abbott G. A molecular biogeochemical study of a northern peatland ecosystem: the effects of substrate source on phenolic composition. In: Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta: Goldschmidt 2010: Earth, Energy, and the Environment. 2010, Knoxville Tennessee, USA: Pergamon
  • Schellekens J, Bindler R, Martínez-Cortizas A, McClymont EL, Abbott GD, Biester H, Pontevedra-Pombal X, Burrman P. Preferential degradation of polyphenols from Sphagnum – 4-isopropenylphenol as a proxy for past hydrological conditions in Sphagnum-dominated peat. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 2015, 150, 74-89.
  • Schellekens J, Buurman P, Kuyper TW, Abbott GD, Pontevedra-Pombal X, Martínez-Cortizas A. Influence of source vegetation and redox conditions on lignin-based decomposition proxies in graminoid-dominated ombrotrophic peat (Penido Vello, NW Spain). Geoderma 2015, 237-238, 270-282.
  • Abbott GD, Swain EY, Muhammad AB, Allton K, Belyea LR, Laing CG, Cowie GL. Effect of water-table fluctuations on the degradation of Sphagnum phenols in surficial peats. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 2013, 106, 177-191.
  • Swain EY, Abbott GD. The effect of redox conditions on sphagnum acid thermochemolysis product distributions in a northern peatland. Journal of Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis 2013, 103, 2-7.

Academic Staff

  • Dr Geoff Abbott