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Letters to Nature
Nature 361, 520 - 523 (11 February 1993); doi:10.1038/361520a0

Recent change of Arctic tundra ecosystems from a net carbon dioxide sink to a source

Walter C. Oechel*, Steven J. Hastings*, George Vourlrtis*, Mitchell Jenkins*, George Riechers & Nancy Grulke

* Systems Ecology Research Group and Department of Biology, San Diego State University, San Diego, California 92182, USA Statewide Air Pollution Research Center, University of California, Riverside, California 92521, USA§ USDA Forest Service, 3200 Southwest Jefferson Way, Corvallis, Oregon 97331, USA To whom correspondence should be addressed.

ARCTIC tundra has been a net sink for carbon dioxide during historic and recent geological times1–4, and large amounts of carbon are stored in the soils of northern ecosystems. Many regions of the Arctic are warmer now than they have been in the past5–10, and this warming may cause the soil to change from a carbon dioxide sink to a source by lowering the water table11–12, thereby accelerating the rate of soil decomposition (CO2 source)3,13–15 so that this dominates over photosynthesis (CO2 sink). Here we present data indicating that the tundra on the North Slope of Alaska has indeed become a source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This change coincides with recent warming in the Arctic, whether this is due to increases in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere or to some other cause. Our results suggest that tundra ecosystems may exert a positive feedback on atmospheric carbon dioxide and greenhouse warming.

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