Articles | Volume 12, issue 1
Research article
28 Jan 2016
Research article |  | 28 Jan 2016

Climate-driven expansion of blanket bogs in Britain during the Holocene

A. V. Gallego-Sala, D. J. Charman, S. P. Harrison, G. Li, and I. C. Prentice

Abstract. Blanket bog occupies approximately 6 % of the area of the UK today. The Holocene expansion of this hyperoceanic biome has previously been explained as a consequence of Neolithic forest clearance. However, the present distribution of blanket bog in Great Britain can be predicted accurately with a simple model (PeatStash) based on summer temperature and moisture index thresholds, and the same model correctly predicts the highly disjunct distribution of blanket bog worldwide. This finding suggests that climate, rather than land-use history, controls blanket-bog distribution in the UK and everywhere else.

We set out to test this hypothesis for blanket bogs in the UK using bioclimate envelope modelling compared with a database of peat initiation age estimates. We used both pollen-based reconstructions and climate model simulations of climate changes between the mid-Holocene (6000 yr BP, 6 ka) and modern climate to drive PeatStash and predict areas of blanket bog. We compiled data on the timing of blanket-bog initiation, based on 228 age determinations at sites where peat directly overlies mineral soil. The model predicts that large areas of northern Britain would have had blanket bog by 6000 yr BP, and the area suitable for peat growth extended to the south after this time. A similar pattern is shown by the basal peat ages and new blanket bog appeared over a larger area during the late Holocene, the greatest expansion being in Ireland, Wales, and southwest England, as the model predicts. The expansion was driven by a summer cooling of about 2 °C, shown by both pollen-based reconstructions and climate models. The data show early Holocene (pre-Neolithic) blanket-bog initiation at over half of the sites in the core areas of Scotland and northern England.

The temporal patterns and concurrence of the bioclimate model predictions and initiation data suggest that climate change provides a parsimonious explanation for the early Holocene distribution and later expansion of blanket bogs in the UK, and it is not necessary to invoke anthropogenic activity as a driver of this major landscape change.

Short summary
It has become a well-established paradigm that blanket bog landscapes in the British Isles are a result of forest clearance by early human populations. We provide a novel test of this hypothesis using results from bioclimatic modelling driven by cimate reconstructions compared with a database of peat initiation dates. Both results show similar patterns of peat initiation over time and space. This suggests that climate was the main driver of blanket bog inception and not human disturbance.