Characterizing Peatland Microtopography Using Gradient and Microform-Based Approaches

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Peatlands represent an important component of the global carbon cycle, storing 180–621 Gt of carbon (C). Small-scale spatial variations in elevation, frequently referred to as microtopography, influence ecological processes associated with the peatland C cycle, including Sphagnum photosynthesis and methane flux. Microtopography can be characterized with measures of topographic variability and by using conceptual classes (microforms) linked to function: most commonly hummocks and hollows. However, the criteria used to define these conceptual classes are often poorly described, if at all, and vary between studies. Such inconsistencies compel development of explicit quantitative methods to classify microforms. Furthermore, gradient-based characterizations that describe spatial variability without the use of microforms are lacking in the literature. Therefore, the objectives of this study were to (1) calculate peatland microtopographical elevation gradients and measures of spatial variability, (2) develop three microform classification methods intended for specific purposes, and (3) evaluate and contrast classification methods. Our results suggest that at spatial scales much larger than microforms, elevation distributions are unimodal and are well approximated with parametric probability density functions. Results from classifications were variable between methods and years and exhibited significant differences in mean hollow areal coverages of a raised ombrotrophic bog. Our results suggest that the conceptualization and classification of microforms can significantly influence microtopographic structural metrics. The three explicit methods for microform classification described here may be used and built upon for future applications.