Dating basal peat: The geochronology of peat initiation revisited

Quik, Cindy; Palstra, Sanne W.I.; Beek, Roy van; Velde, Ype van der; Candel, Jasper H.J.; Linden, Marjolein van der; Kubiak-Martens, Lucy; Swindles, Graeme T.; Makaske, Bart; Wallinga, Jakob


Attributing the start of peat growth to an absolute timescale requires dating the bottom of peat deposits overlying mineral sediment, often called the basal peat. Peat initiation is reflected in the stratigraphy as a gradual transition from mineral sediment to increasingly organic material, up to where it is called peat. So far, varying criteria have been used to define basal peat, resulting in divergent approaches to date peat initiation. The lack of a universally applicable and quantitative definition, combined with multiple concerns that have been raised previously regarding the radiocarbon dating of peat, may result in apparent ages that are either too old or too young for the timing of peat initiation. Here, we aim to formulate updated recommendations for dating peat initiation. We provide a conceptual framework that supports the use of the organic matter (OM) gradient for a quantitative and reproducible definition of the mineral-to-peat transition (i.e., the stratigraphical range reflecting the timespan of the peat initiation process) and the layer defined as basal peat (i.e., the stratigraphical layer that is defined as the bottom of a peat deposit). Selection of dating samples is often challenging due to poor preservation of plant macrofossils in basal peat, and the representativity of humic and humin dates for the age of basal peat is uncertain. We therefore analyse the mineral-to-peat transition based on three highly detailed sequences of radiocarbon dates, including dates of plant macrofossils and the humic and humin fractions obtained from bulk samples. Our case study peatland in the Netherlands currently harbours a bog vegetation, but biostratigraphical analyses show that during peat initiation the vegetation was mesotrophic. Results show that plant macrofossils provide the most accurate age in the mineral-to-peat transition and are therefore recommendable to use for 14C dating basal peat. If these are unattainable, the humic fraction provides the best alternative and is interpreted as a terminus-ante-quem for peat initiation. The potential large age difference between dates of plant macrofossils and humic or humin dates (up to ∼1700 years between macrofossil and humic ages, and with even larger differences for humins) suggests that studies reusing existing bulk dates of basal peat should take great care in data interpretation. The potentially long timespan of the peat initiation process (with medians of ∼1000, ∼1300 and ∼1500 years within our case study peatland) demonstrates that choices regarding sampling size and resolution need to be well substantiated. We summarise our findings as a set of recommendations for dating basal peats, and advocate the widespread use of OM determination to obtain a low-cost, quantitative and reproducible definition of basal peat that eases intercomparison of studies.