Buoyancy-driven flow in a peat moss layer as a mechanism for solute transport

C. Rappoldt, G.J.J.M. Pieters, E.B. Adema, G.J. Baaijens, A.P. Grootjans, C.J. van Duijn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Transport of nutrients, CO2, methane, and oxygen plays an important ecological role at the surface of wetland ecosystems. A possibly important transport mechanism in a water-saturated peat moss layer (usually Sphagnum cuspidatum) is nocturnal buoyancy flow, the downward flow of relatively cold surface water, and the upward flow of warm water induced by nocturnal cooling. Mathematical stability analysis showed that buoyancy flow occurs in a cooling porous layer if the system¿s Rayleigh number (Ra) exceeds 25. For a temperature difference of 10 K between day and night, a typical Ra value for a peat moss layer is 80, which leads to quickly developing buoyancy cells. Numerical simulation demonstrated that fluid flow leads to a considerable mixing of water. Temperature measurements in a cylindrical peat sample of 50-cm height and 35-cm diameter were in agreement with the theoretical results. The nocturnal flow and the associated mixing of the water represent a mechanism for solute transport in water-saturated parts of peat land and in other types of terrestrializing vegetation. This mechanism may be particularly important in continental wetlands, where Ra values in summer are often much larger than the threshold for fluid flow. The upper part of a living mire consists of a sponge-like layer of predominantly moss species, the acrotelm (1), with a porosity above 95%. The green and brownish plants near the surface (Fig. 1) intercept light and fix CO2. Further down, the older plants turn yellow and start to decay. Aerobic decay in the acrotelm takes place relatively rapidly and makes nutrients available for recycling. Below the acrotelm, a denser layer, the catotelm, is present, where the hydraulic conductivity is much lower than in the acrotelm (2), and where the decay rate is several orders of magnitude smaller due to the anoxic conditions (3). It is the peat formation (4, 5) in the slowly growing catotelm that represents a sink of atmospheric CO2 (5, 6). The production of organic matter at the surface largely depends on the recycling of nutrients originating from decomposing plant material. Because decomposition and photosynthesis take place at different depths, the transport of oxygen, carbon compounds, and nutrients forms an important element in the functioning of the mire ecosystem. This transport takes place both inside (7) and outside the plants by diffusion and fluid flow. In this paper, we investigate a mechanism for fluid flow in a water-saturated peat moss layer, which does not depend on capillarity or an external hydraulic pressure. During the night, the surface cools, leading to relatively cold water on top of warm water, and if the temperature drop is sufficiently large, the cold water sinks and the warm water rises. This type of flow is called buoyancy flow, and it implies convective transport of the heat and solutes carried with the water. Buoyancy flow often occurs as ``cells¿¿ consisting of adjacent regions with upward and downward flow. We studied the phenomenon in a peat moss layer by means of a mathematical model, numerical simulation, and laboratory measurements.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14937-14942
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number25
Publication statusPublished - 2003


  • horizontal porous layer
  • boundary-conditions
  • large peatlands
  • sphagnum
  • stability
  • carbon
  • modulation
  • convection
  • growth
  • bog


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