The role of hydrological transience in peatland pattern formation
The sloping flanks of peatlands are commonly patterned with non-random, contour-parallel stripes of distinct micro-habitats such as hummocks, lawns and hollows. Patterning seems to be governed by feedbacks among peatland hydrological processes, plant micro-succession, plant litter production and peat decomposition. An improved understanding of peatland patterning may provide important insights into broader aspects of the long-term development of peatlands and their likely response to future climate change.
We recreated a cellular simulation model from the literature, as well as three subtle variants of the model, to explore the controls on peatland patterning. Our models each consist of three submodels, which simulate: peatland water tables in a gridded landscape, micro-habitat dynamics in response to water-table depths, and changes in peat hydraulic properties.
We found that the strength and nature of simulated patterning was highly dependent on the degree to which water tables had reached a steady state in response to hydrological inputs. Contrary to previous studies, we found that under a true steady state the models predict largely unpatterned landscapes that cycle rapidly between contrasting dry and wet states, dominated by hummocks and hollows, respectively. Realistic patterning only developed when simulated water tables were still transient.
Literal interpretation of the degree of hydrological transience required for patterning suggests that the model should be discarded; however, the transient water tables appear to have inadvertently replicated an ecological memory effect that may be important to peatland patterning. Recently buried peat layers may remain hydrologically active despite no longer reflecting current vegetation patterns, thereby highlighting the potential importance of three-dimensional structural complexity in peatlands to understanding the two-dimensional surface-patterning phenomenon.
The models were highly sensitive to the assumed values of peat hydraulic properties, which we take to indicate that the models are missing an important negative feedback between peat decomposition and changes in peat hydraulic properties. Understanding peatland patterning likely requires the unification of cellular landscape models such as ours with cohort-based models of long-term peatland development.