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Konecny, Kristina; Ballhorn, Uwe; Navratil, Peter; Jubanski, Juilson; Page, Susan E.; Tansey, Kevin; Hooijer, Aljosja; Vernimmen, Ronald and Siegert, Florian (2016): Variable carbon losses from recurrent fires in drained tropical peatlands. In: Global Change Biology, Vol. 22, No. 4: pp. 1469-1480

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Tropical peatland fires play a significant role in the context of global warming through emissions of substantial amounts of greenhouse gases. However, the state of knowledge on carbon loss from these fires is still poorly developed with few studies reporting the associated mass of peat consumed. Furthermore, spatial and temporal variations in burn depth have not been previously quantified. This study presents the first spatially explicit investigation of fire-driven tropical peat loss and its variability. An extensive airborne Light Detection and Ranging data set was used to develop a prefire peat surface modelling methodology, enabling the spatially differentiated quantification of burned area depth over the entire burned area. We observe a strong interdependence between burned area depth, fire frequency and distance to drainage canals. For the first time, we show that relative burned area depth decreases over the first four fire events and is constant thereafter. Based on our results, we revise existing peat and carbon loss estimates for recurrent fires in drained tropical peatlands. We suggest values for the dry mass of peat fuel consumed that are 206tha(-1) for initial fires, reducing to 115tha(-1) for second, 69tha(-1) for third and 23tha(-1) for successive fires, which are 58-7% of the current IPCC Tier 1 default value for all fires. In our study area, this results in carbon losses of 114, 64, 38 and 13tCha(-1) for first to fourth fires, respectively. Furthermore, we show that with increasing proximity to drainage canals both burned area depth and the probability of recurrent fires increase and present equations explaining burned area depth as a function of distance to drainage canal. This improved knowledge enables a more accurate approach to emissions accounting and will support IPCC Tier 2 reporting of fire emissions.

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