Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

Other reports in this collection Changes in Temperature

Temperature is an important factor controlling many ecological and physical functions of wetlands. Primary productivity and microbial activity are both controlled to a certain extent by temperature conditions. Temperature also affects evapotranspiration rates and has an impact on the water regime. Because higher temperatures and drying of the surface soil usually occur together and interactively affect the ecosystem processes, it is not always possible to separate their impacts.

Although Gorham (1991) suggests that the effects of temperature will be overshadowed by the impacts of water-level drawdown on northern peatlands, the impacts of temperature increases on wetlands on permafrost may be drastic (Gorham, 1994a). A fairly small increase in temperature might initiate large-scale melting of permafrost, with thermokarst erosion and changed hydrological regimes as a consequence (Billings, 1987). Work by Vitt et al. (1994) and Halsey et al. (1997) has demonstrated clearly the dynamic association between the distribution of peatlands, peatland types, and the presence or absence of permafrost in North America. This association is strong enough that it has been used as a proxy method for inferring climatic variability during the Holocene (Halsey et al., 1995). This might imply shifts from black spruce/Sphagnum/lichen communities on permafrost to wetter fen communities, with subsequent changes in carbon cycling. Land-Use Change

Land-use change may create multiple pressures on wetland habitats. Area estimates of the scale of direct development of tropical peatlands vary and provide only an imprecise picture of the current situation (Immirzi et al., 1992; Maltby and Immirzi, 1996). In southeast Asia, agriculture and forestry are the major peatland land uses. Toward the end of the 1980s, it was estimated that in Indonesia alone 3.7 Mha (18% of the total peat swamp forest) had undergone some form of development (Silvius et al., 1987).

Cultivation of tropical peatlands involves measures that radically change the hydrological regime and consequently influence vegetation and soil processes. Forests are cleared and effective drainage installed. In many places in southeast Asia, cultivation of horticultural and estate crops has met with mixed success, and some previously converted peatlands have been abandoned, although peat-forming vegetation has failed to reestablish (Immirzi et al., 1992). Reasons for failure include poor water management and persistent infertility of the soil (Rijksen et al., 1997).

The total area of tropical peatland drained or otherwise altered during forestry management is not known. Silvius et al. (1987) suggest that as much as 0.11 million km2 of peatlands in Indonesia (i.e., as much as 50% of the total resource) are possibly being exploited for forestry purposes. In Malaysia, most of the remaining peat swamp forest outside limited conservation areas has been logged (Immirzi et al., 1992). Sustainable-yield forestry is likely to be the most appropriate form of land use for peat swamp forest, but such methods applicable to peat swamps have yet to be developed, let alone implemented (Immirzi et al., 1992).

Use of peatlands for forestry usually brings about smaller changes in the ecosystem. In floodplain swamps and peatlands of the more continental areas of North America, often only tree stands are managed (Dahl and Zoltai, 1997), but in northwestern Europe and the southeastern United States, forestry use includes artificial drainage (Richardson and McCarthy, 1994; Päivänen, 1997). Some 0.15 million km2 have been drained for forestry, mostly in Scandinavia and Russia (Päivänen, 1997). In these cases, much of the original vegetation (Laine et al., 1995) and functions (Aust and Lea, 1991; Minkkinen et al., 1999) are preserved during forestry management. About 70% of the expansive peatlands in North Carolina (6,000 km2) have been entirely or partially degraded through draining, ditching, or clearing (Richardson and Gibbons, 1993).

Peat harvesting for energy or horticultural use has the most drastic impact on the ecosystem; vegetation is removed with the topsoil prior to harvesting, and most of the accumulated peat gradually is extracted (Nyrönen, 1996).

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