Transient high pore‐water pressures, up to 50 cm higher than ambient pressure, developed over the summer season at various depths in a shallow (1 m) fen peat. The excess pressures had a pattern of gradual increases and sharp drops, and their initiation and release typically corresponded to abrupt changes in atmospheric pressure. We conclude that these phenomena depend on gas bubbles (probably methane) generated by biological activity, both by clogging pores and by building up pressure as they grow. These transient and spatially discontinuous high‐pressure zones were found using pressure transducers in sealed (backfilled) pits, but not in piezometers open to the atmosphere. Piezometers may provide a conduit for the release of gas and pressure, thus rendering them unsuitable for measuring this phenomenon.
Although the development of localized zones of high pressure causes erratic and unpredictable hydraulic gradients, we suggest that their effect on the flow of water or solutes is offset by the reduced permeability caused by the bubbles, which allows them to be sustained. These zones, however, probably deflect flows driven by the dominant hydraulic gradients. Furthermore, they may cause the peat volume to adjust (swell). The use and interpretation of traditional methods for estimating hydraulic head and conductivity in peat soils thus require great caution. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.