The humification process is one of the least understood and most intriguing aspects of humus chemistry and vital to the global carbon (C) cycle. Peatlands represent the largest terrestrial reservoirs of organic C and support a unique biodiversity, but are also natural archives of climate and environmental changes. In fact, cores from ombrotrophic peatlands are commonly used to reconstruct environmental impacts by human activities during the past decades, centuries and millennia. Understanding the extent to which bogs may serve as reliable archives is of paramount importance in order to ensure that chronological information about natural and human-induced environmental changes are effectively preserved in peat deposits rather than irretrievably affected by humification. Structural changes of the organic matter which constitutes peat are often evaluated by various indirect measures of the degree of humification. Numerous methods and proxies have been proposed and used during the last century, often providing contrasting or inconsistent results. Here, we tested multiple physical, chemical, spectroscopic and thermal approaches using peat samples collected from nine bogs on four continents. Despite the different climatic conditions, botanical composition, depth and age of peat formation, we show that the H/C ratio is the simplest, most widely valid and cost-effective humification proxy and should find universal application to multi-proxy geochemical and paleoenvironmental studies. Moreover, we show that, on average, three-quarters of the organic C in the studied bogs is in a comparatively undecomposed state, and thus vulnerable to climate changes.
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