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Original Research ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. For. Glob. Change | doi: 10.3389/ffgc.2019.00048

Fire in the swamp forest: palaeoecological insights into natural and human-induced burning in intact tropical peatlands

 Lydia E. Cole1, 2, 3*,  Shonil A. Bhagwat3, 4 and Katherine J. Willis3, 5, 6
  • 1University of Liverpool, United Kingdom
  • 2University of St Andrews, United Kingdom
  • 3Oxford Long Term Ecology Laboratory, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, United Kingdom
  • 4The Open University, United Kingdom
  • 5University of Bergen, Norway
  • 6St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Tropical peat swamp forests are invaluable for their role in storing atmospheric carbon, notably in their unique below-ground reservoirs. Differing from terra firme forests, the peat-forming function of tropical swamps relies on the integrity of discrete hydrological units, in turn intricately linked to the above-ground woody and herbaceous vegetation. Contemporary changes at a local, e.g. fire, to global level, e.g. climatic change, are impacting in the integrity and functioning of these ecosystems. In order to determine to what extent and predict their likely future response, it is essential to understand past ecosystem disturbance and resilience. Here, we explore the impact of burning on tropical peat swamp forests. Fires within degraded tropical peatlands are now commonplace; whilst fires within intact peat swamp forests are thought to be rare events. Yet little is known about their long-term natural fire regime. Using fossil pollen and charcoal data from three peat cores collected from Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, we looked at the incidence and impact of local and regional fire on coastal peat swamp forests over the last 7000 years. Palaeoecological results demonstrate that burning has occurred in these wetland ecosystems throughout their history, with peaks corresponding to periods of strengthened ENSO. However, prior to the Colonial era c. 1839 when human presence in the coastal swamp forests was relatively minimal, neither local nor regional burning significantly impacted on the forest vegetation. After the mid-19th Century, at the onset of intensified land-use change, fire incidence elevated significantly within the peatlands. Although fire does not correlate with past vegetation changes, the long-term data reveal that open vegetation, a proxy for human forest clearance, does follow a similar pattern. Our results suggest that human activity may be strongly influencing and acting synergistically with fire in the recent past, leading to the enhanced degradation of these peatland ecosystems. However, intact tropical peat swamp forests can and did recover from local fire events. These findings support present-day concerns about the increase in fire incidence and combined impacts of fire, human disturbance and El Niño on peat swamp forests, with serious implications for biodiversity, human health and global climate change.

Keywords: disturbance, fire, human impact, Palaeoecology, Peat swamp forests, Tropical peatlands, vegetation change, resilience

Received: 16 Dec 2018; Accepted: 09 Aug 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Cole, Bhagwat and Willis. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Lydia E. Cole, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, United Kingdom, lydcole@gmail.com