Peatlands are globally important stores of carbon (C) that contain a record of how their rates of C accumulation have changed over time. Recently, near-surface peat has been used to assess the effect of current land use practices on C accumulation rates in peatlands. However, the notion that accumulation rates in recently formed peat can be compared to those from older, deeper, peat is mistaken – continued decomposition means that the majority of newly added material will not become part of the long-term C store. Palaeoecologists have known for some time that high apparent C accumulation rates in recently formed peat are an artefact and take steps to account for it. Here we show, using a model, how the artefact arises. We also demonstrate that increased C accumulation rates in near-surface peat cannot be used to infer that a peatland as a whole is accumulating more C – in fact the reverse can be true because deep peat can be modified by events hundreds of years after it was formed. Our findings highlight that care is needed when evaluating recent C addition to peatlands especially because these interpretations could be wrongly used to inform land use policy and decisions.
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