Peat in the discontinuous permafrost zone contains a globally significant reservoir of carbon that has undergone multiple permafrost-thaw cycles since the end of the mid-Holocene (~3700 years before present). Periods of thaw increase C decomposition rates which leads to the release of CO2 and CH4 to the atmosphere creating potential climate feedback. To determine the magnitude and direction of such feedback, we measured CO2 and CH4 emissions and modeled C accumulation rates and radiative fluxes from measurements of two radioactive tracers with differing lifetimes to describe the C balance of the peatland over multiple permafrost-thaw cycles since the initiation of permafrost at the site. At thaw features, the balance between increased primary production and higher CH4 emission stimulated by warmer temperatures and wetter conditions favors C sequestration and enhanced peat accumulation. Flux measurements suggest that frozen plateaus may intermittently (order of years to decades) act as CO2 sources depending on temperature and net ecosystem respiration rates, but modeling results suggest that—despite brief periods of net C loss to the atmosphere at the initiation of thaw—integrated over millennia, these sites have acted as net C sinks via peat accumulation. In greenhouse gas terms, the transition from frozen permafrost to thawed wetland is accompanied by increasing CO2 uptake that is partially offset by increasing CH4 emissions. In the short-term (decadal time scale) the net effect of this transition is likely enhanced warming via increased radiative C emissions, while in the long-term (centuries) net C deposition provides a negative feedback to climate warming.
Earth Systems Research Center
Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
American Geophysical Union (AGU)
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Wilson RM, L Fitzhugh, G Whiting, S Frolking, MD Harrison, N Dimova, WC Burnett, JP Chanton. 2017. The greenhouse gas balance of organic soils undergoing permafrost thaw, J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosciences, 122, https://dx.doi.org/10.1002/2016JG003600
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