We examine the carbon balance of North American wetlands by reviewing and synthesizing the published literature and soil databases. North American wetlands contain about 220 Pg C, most of which is in peat. They are a small to moderate carbon sink of about 49 Tg C yr−1, although the uncertainty around this estimate is greater than 100%, with the largest unknown being the role of carbon sequestration by sedimentation in freshwater mineral-soil wetlands. We estimate that North American wetlands emit 9 Tg methane (CH4) yr−1; however, the uncertainty of this estimate is also greater than 100%. With the exception of estuarine wetlands, CH4 emissions from wetlands may largely offset any positive benefits of carbon sequestration in soils and plants in terms of climate forcing. Historically, the destruction of wetlands through land-use changes has had the largest effects on the carbon fluxes and consequent radiative forcing of North American wetlands. The primary effects have been a reduction in their ability to sequester carbon (a small to moderate increase in radiative forcing), oxidation of their soil carbon reserves upon drainage (a small increase in radiative forcing), and reduction in CH4 emissions (a small to large decrease in radiative forcing). It is uncertain how global changes will affect the carbon pools and fluxes of North American wetlands. We will not be able to predict accurately the role of wetlands as potential positive or negative feedbacks to anthropogenic global change without knowing the integrative effects of changes in temperature, precipitation, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, and atmospheric deposition of nitrogen and sulfur on the carbon balance of North American wetlands.
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Vol. 26 • No. 4