A shift of thermokarst lakes from carbon sources to sinks during the Holocene epoch

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
511,
Pages:
452–456
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nature13560
Received
Accepted
Published online

Thermokarst lakes formed across vast regions of Siberia and Alaska during the last deglaciation and are thought to be a net source of atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide during the Holocene epoch1, 2, 3, 4. However, the same thermokarst lakes can also sequester carbon5, and it remains uncertain whether carbon uptake by thermokarst lakes can offset their greenhouse gas emissions. Here we use field observations of Siberian permafrost exposures, radiocarbon dating and spatial analyses to quantify Holocene carbon stocks and fluxes in lake sediments overlying thawed Pleistocene-aged permafrost. We find that carbon accumulation in deep thermokarst-lake sediments since the last deglaciation is about 1.6 times larger than the mass of Pleistocene-aged permafrost carbon released as greenhouse gases when the lakes first formed. Although methane and carbon dioxide emissions following thaw lead to immediate radiative warming, carbon uptake in peat-rich sediments occurs over millennial timescales. We assess thermokarst-lake carbon feedbacks to climate with an atmospheric perturbation model and find that thermokarst basins switched from a net radiative warming to a net cooling climate effect about 5,000years ago. High rates of Holocene carbon accumulation in 20 lake sediments (47±10 grams of carbon per square metre per year; mean±standard error) were driven by thermokarst erosion and deposition of terrestrial organic matter, by nutrient release from thawing permafrost that stimulated lake productivity and by slow decomposition in cold, anoxic lake bottoms. When lakes eventually drained, permafrost formation rapidly sequestered sediment carbon. Our estimate of about 160petagrams of Holocene organic carbon in deep lake basins of Siberia and Alaska increases the circumpolar peat carbon pool estimate for permafrost regions by over 50 per cent (ref. 6). The carbon in perennially frozen drained lake sediments may become vulnerable to mineralization as permafrost disappears7, 8, 9, potentially negating the climate stabilization provided by thermokarst lakes during the late Holocene.

At a glance

Figures

  1. Carbon cycling during the development of deep thermokarst lakes.
    Figure 1: Carbon cycling during the development of deep thermokarst lakes.

    a, Yedoma with massive Pleistocene ice wedges. b, Thermokarst-lake expansion (thaw bulb shown in yellow; thaw boundary shown as a dotted line) accompanied by Pleistocene-aged CH4 emissions and release of N and P from yedoma into lakes, stimulating aquatic productivity and CO2 uptake, which offset Pleistocene-aged CO2 emissions from yedoma decay. c, Partially drained lake with atmospheric CO2 uptake by plants forming thick Holocene* organic carbon deposits (brown) exceeding CH4 emissions from contemporary organic matter decay. d, Refreezing of remaining Pleistocene and Holocene* carbon in sediments following complete lake drainage (new ice wedges are shown as triangles), with peatland-type CH4 emissions and CO2 uptake. The thicknesses of CH4 and CO2 arrows are scaled by relative magnitude on a carbon-mass basis (Supplementary Information section 1.6).

  2. Facies description and carbon contents in the deep thermokarst-lake landscape.
    Figure 2: Facies description and carbon contents in the deep thermokarst-lake landscape.

    a, Facies depositional environment; relative abundance of macrofossils (dark green, aquatic moss; mid-green, wet moss; light blue, other aquatic; turquoise, wet sedge; blue, other emergent mosses; light green, unidentified; yellow, terrestrial; orange, dry graminoid; red, detritus in silt; grey, inorganic) (Supplementary Table 1) scaled by the mean organic matter content of the facies; and fraction of macrofossils with 14C ages <14kyr ago in permafrost exposures (Extended Data Table 1). Facies were determined in the field based on physical properties; subsequent 14C dating confirmed facies ages (Pleistocene versus Holocene*). The schematic (b) and photographs (c, d) show examples of facies in cross-section; pole marks are 20cm. Coloured bars in e indicate Holocene* organic carbon stocks by facies observed in 49 refrozen, thermokarst exposures (see a; black, wood; dagger, fully exposed). f, Boreal-zone thermokarst basins accumulated more Holocene* organic carbon (mean±s.e.; 196±27kgCm−2, n = 10) than tundra basins (122±16kgCm−2, n = 18; one-sided t-test, P<0.05).

  3. Thermokarst-lake carbon cycling dynamic since the last deglaciation.
    Figure 3: Thermokarst-lake carbon cycling dynamic since the last deglaciation.

    a, The increase in arctic insolation30 coincided with widespread thermokarst-lake formation during deglaciation (Supplementary Information section 1.6.1, Supplementary Table 2). b, Carbon flux trajectories for yedoma-region thermokarst basins determined by basal date frequency in a (CO2-C (the carbon component of carbon dioxide) uptake by peat formation, negative flux; CO2-C emission from thawed yedoma decay and CH4-C (the carbon component of methane) emissions, positive flux). The solid red line in b is the sum of CH4-C emissions from decay of thawed yedoma deposits (dashes) and younger organic matter termed Holocene* (Supplementary Information section 1.1) in thermokarst basins (dots). Identical yedoma-derived CH4-C and CO2-C emission curves are based on methanogenesis stoichiometry (Supplementary Information section 1.6.2). c, Radiative forcing due to atmospheric perturbations in CH4 and CO2 concentration for flux trajectories shown in b. d, Cumulative changes in the yedoma-region permafrost carbon pool due to loss of yedoma carbon to the atmosphere by thermokarst-lake formation (negative) and atmospheric carbon uptake and burial by the same lakes (positive). See Supplementary Information section 1.6 and Extended Data Table 3 for detailed methods and uncertainties.

  4. Comparison of long-term organic carbon accumulation rates among northern lakes and peatlands by mean annual temperature.
    Figure 4: Comparison of long-term organic carbon accumulation rates among northern lakes and peatlands by mean annual temperature.

    Despite cold temperatures in the North Siberia yedoma region, thermokarst lakes there (closed circle, mean and 95% confidence interval) accumulated organic carbon faster than other northern lakes (open circles labelled 1–9) and peatlands (open diamonds labelled 10–42; except the West Siberian Lowlands, labelled 26 and 28), 228 European lakes (5.6gm−2yr−1; ref. 15) and global lakes (4.5–14gm−2yr−1; ref. 17). See Supplementary Information section 3.1 for regional data references.

  5. Map of main distribution of yedoma in the Beringia region in Siberia and Alaska (yellow regions).
    Extended Data Fig. 1: Map of main distribution of yedoma in the Beringia region in Siberia and Alaska (yellow regions).

    a, The Kolyma Lowland, considered largely covered by yedoma during the Last Glacial Maximum, now has only discontinuous yedoma coverage (yellow regions in b) owing to widespread destructive thermokarst and fluvial processes shaping the yedoma landscape since the early Holocene* (Supplementary Information section 1.1). Red dots in b indicate the locations of permafrost exposures sampled in boreal regions—Anuiy (Inu), Duvanii Yar (Duv), Plakhanski Yar (Pla), Cherskii (Cher)—and tundra regions—Chukochi Cape (Chuk and Dtlb) and Krestovskiy Cape (Kres). Literature data were synthesized from other western and eastern yedoma regions in Siberia5, 10, 32, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 57, 58, 59, 64, 65, 66 and Alaska4, 56, 67, 68, 69, respectively (black dots in a). For map clarity, abundant lakes in the study regions were not plotted. b, Our central Beringia study region in the Kolyma Lowland in Northeast Siberia (small black frame in a; 60,000 km2) is characterized by yedoma hills, deep yedoma lake basins, and fluvial flood plains of the Kolyma River and its tributaries.

  6. Relative contributions of facies F1-F6 to the average organic carbon content within the surface 10[thinsp]m of North Siberian alases.
    Extended Data Fig. 2: Relative contributions of facies F1–F6 to the average organic carbon content within the surface 10m of North Siberian alases.

    The black line indicates the number of exposure profiles included in the observations. Extrapolating the Holocene* organic carbon component observed in these profiles to the extent of deep thermokarst basins in the yedoma region of Beringia (925,400km2, Supplementary Information section 1.6.1), we estimate the following Holocene* carbon pool sizes in the alases: 12±2.5Pg for 0–0.3m, 36±4.1Pg for 0–1m, 64±4.3Pg for 0–2m, 89±6.6Pg for 0–3m, 126±9.0Pg for 0–5m, 144±10.1Pg for 0–7m and 155±11.6Pg for 0–10m. Error terms represent standard error at the 95% confidence limits derived by propagating uncertainties of the estimates of mean organic carbon bulk density for each depth interval, based on the interval size and number of field samples measured; additional uncertainty associated with the yedoma region extent is shown in Extended Data Table 3. Below 10m, extrapolating our observation of Holocene* carbon in 7% of exposures, we estimate an additional 5PgC. Pleistocene carbon, also observed in the profiles and included in this figure, is accounted for in the regional-scale carbon mass balance calculation since these deposits extended deeper than we were able to expose in cross-section (Methods).

  7. Box plots showing physiochemical characteristics of lake bottom water in thermokarst lakes formed in Pleistocene yedoma (Y) and non-yedoma Holocene floodplain (F) permafrost in the same region of North Siberia.
    Extended Data Fig. 3: Box plots showing physiochemical characteristics of lake bottom water in thermokarst lakes formed in Pleistocene yedoma (Y) and non-yedoma Holocene floodplain (F) permafrost in the same region of North Siberia.

    DOC, dissolved organic carbon; DIN, dissolved inorganic nitrogen, dominated by ammonium; SRP, soluble reactive phosphorus. ‘Conductivity’ means specific conductivity. The number of samples n represent single observations per lake per day on different dates during June, July and August 2002–2003 from 9 yedoma and 13 floodplain thermokarst lakes (see Methods). The two-sample, two-sided Mann–Whitney test revealed differences between Y and F for all parameters except pH (P<0.01).

  8. Comparison of physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of a yedoma lake and a non-yedoma lake of similar depth, volume and latitude in midsummer.
    Extended Data Fig. 4: Comparison of physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of a yedoma lake and a non-yedoma lake of similar depth, volume and latitude in midsummer.

    Closed circles indicate the yedoma lake, Grass Lake (68.75°N, 161.38°W), near Cherskii, Russia. Open circles indicate the non-yedoma lake (68.64°N, −149.61°W) near Toolik Field Station, Alaska, USA. Both lakes were thermally stratified, but the yedoma lake had an anaerobic hypolimnion with exceedingly high concentrations of DOC, SRP, DIN and other solutes (indicated by specific conductivity). In addition, the yedoma lake had a much lower light environment, a colder lake bottom temperature, lower pH, and relatively high concentrations of chlorophyll-a in the epilimnion and dissolved ions in the hypolimnion. The Toolik Field Station data were from ref. 60 and G. Kling (personal communication, 10 April 2013).

  9. Organic carbon pools in the yedoma region.
    Extended Data Fig. 5: Organic carbon pools in the yedoma region.

    Our yedoma-region total organic carbon pool-size estimate (456±45Pg; Extended Data Table 3) is the sum of the following subset pools: (1) Holocene peat located above undisturbed yedoma permafrost; (2) yedoma that thawed, was reworked, and is now stored in thermokarst basins in facies F3 and F5; (3) taberite sediments representing in situ thawed, diagenetically altered yedoma in facies F6; (4) undisturbed yedoma in facies F7; (5) non-yedoma, Holocene* carbon stored in thermokarst basins in facies F1–F5 that was fixed via photosynthesis in and around the basins. Taberite deposits (red bar) are an important component of the yedoma-region total carbon pool that were not included in the recent yedoma-region carbon inventory of ref. 11.

Tables

  1. Physical and chemical characteristics of facies in North Siberian permafrost exposures
    Extended Data Table 1: Physical and chemical characteristics of facies in North Siberian permafrost exposures
  2. Organic carbon concentrations in yedoma (F7) and taberites (F6) and organic carbon bulk density from various subregions in North Siberia
    Extended Data Table 2: Organic carbon concentrations in yedoma (F7) and taberites (F6) and organic carbon bulk density from various subregions in North Siberia
  3. Calculations (a) and uncertainty analysis (b) of estimated carbon pool sizes and fluxes in the yedoma region
    Extended Data Table 3: Calculations (a) and uncertainty analysis (b) of estimated carbon pool sizes and fluxes in the yedoma region
  4. Greenhouse gas parameters for atmospheric model
    Extended Data Table 4: Greenhouse gas parameters for atmospheric model
  5. Mean nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) concentrations in ice wedges, soils and present-day vegetation
    Extended Data Table 5: Mean nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) concentrations in ice wedges, soils and present-day vegetation

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Author information

Affiliations

  1. Water and Environmental Research Center, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775-5860, USA

    • K. M. Walter Anthony,
    • M. C. Jones &
    • P. M. Anthony
  2. Northeast Scientific Station, Pacific Institute for Geography, Far-East Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences, Cherskii 678830, Russia

    • S. A. Zimov &
    • S. Davydov
  3. Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775-7320, USA

    • G. Grosse
  4. US Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia 20192, USA

    • M. C. Jones
  5. Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775-7000, USA

    • F. S. Chapin III
  6. Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55108, USA

    • J. C. Finlay
  7. Department of Biology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • M. C. Mack
  8. Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology, Marburg 35043, Germany

    • P. Frenzel
  9. Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire 03824-3525, USA

    • S. Frolking
  10. Present address: Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Potsdam 14473, Germany.

    • G. Grosse

Contributions

K.M.W.A. had primary responsibility for study design, field work, laboratory measurements, data analysis, interpretation and writing. S.A.Z. co-designed the study and contributed substantially to data interpretation. M.C.J., G.G., P.M.A. and F.S.C. contributed to project planning, field and laboratory work, and interpretation of results. M.C.J. provided expertise in macrofossil identification. G.G. conducted spatial analyses. K.M.W.A., M.C.M., J.C.F. and S.D. conducted laboratory analyses of lake water samples and ice wedges, and designed and implemented the component of terrestrial vegetation and soil nutrient cycling. P.F. conducted anaerobic laboratory incubations. S.F. created the atmospheric model for radiative forcing calculations. All authors contributed to the revision and integration of the manuscript.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

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Author details

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figures

  1. Extended Data Figure 1: Map of main distribution of yedoma in the Beringia region in Siberia and Alaska (yellow regions). (757 KB)

    a, The Kolyma Lowland, considered largely covered by yedoma during the Last Glacial Maximum, now has only discontinuous yedoma coverage (yellow regions in b) owing to widespread destructive thermokarst and fluvial processes shaping the yedoma landscape since the early Holocene* (Supplementary Information section 1.1). Red dots in b indicate the locations of permafrost exposures sampled in boreal regions—Anuiy (Inu), Duvanii Yar (Duv), Plakhanski Yar (Pla), Cherskii (Cher)—and tundra regions—Chukochi Cape (Chuk and Dtlb) and Krestovskiy Cape (Kres). Literature data were synthesized from other western and eastern yedoma regions in Siberia5, 10, 32, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 57, 58, 59, 64, 65, 66 and Alaska4, 56, 67, 68, 69, respectively (black dots in a). For map clarity, abundant lakes in the study regions were not plotted. b, Our central Beringia study region in the Kolyma Lowland in Northeast Siberia (small black frame in a; 60,000 km2) is characterized by yedoma hills, deep yedoma lake basins, and fluvial flood plains of the Kolyma River and its tributaries.

  2. Extended Data Figure 2: Relative contributions of facies F1–F6 to the average organic carbon content within the surface 10m of North Siberian alases. (279 KB)

    The black line indicates the number of exposure profiles included in the observations. Extrapolating the Holocene* organic carbon component observed in these profiles to the extent of deep thermokarst basins in the yedoma region of Beringia (925,400km2, Supplementary Information section 1.6.1), we estimate the following Holocene* carbon pool sizes in the alases: 12±2.5Pg for 0–0.3m, 36±4.1Pg for 0–1m, 64±4.3Pg for 0–2m, 89±6.6Pg for 0–3m, 126±9.0Pg for 0–5m, 144±10.1Pg for 0–7m and 155±11.6Pg for 0–10m. Error terms represent standard error at the 95% confidence limits derived by propagating uncertainties of the estimates of mean organic carbon bulk density for each depth interval, based on the interval size and number of field samples measured; additional uncertainty associated with the yedoma region extent is shown in Extended Data Table 3. Below 10m, extrapolating our observation of Holocene* carbon in 7% of exposures, we estimate an additional 5PgC. Pleistocene carbon, also observed in the profiles and included in this figure, is accounted for in the regional-scale carbon mass balance calculation since these deposits extended deeper than we were able to expose in cross-section (Methods).

  3. Extended Data Figure 3: Box plots showing physiochemical characteristics of lake bottom water in thermokarst lakes formed in Pleistocene yedoma (Y) and non-yedoma Holocene floodplain (F) permafrost in the same region of North Siberia. (445 KB)

    DOC, dissolved organic carbon; DIN, dissolved inorganic nitrogen, dominated by ammonium; SRP, soluble reactive phosphorus. ‘Conductivity’ means specific conductivity. The number of samples n represent single observations per lake per day on different dates during June, July and August 2002–2003 from 9 yedoma and 13 floodplain thermokarst lakes (see Methods). The two-sample, two-sided Mann–Whitney test revealed differences between Y and F for all parameters except pH (P<0.01).

  4. Extended Data Figure 4: Comparison of physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of a yedoma lake and a non-yedoma lake of similar depth, volume and latitude in midsummer. (201 KB)

    Closed circles indicate the yedoma lake, Grass Lake (68.75°N, 161.38°W), near Cherskii, Russia. Open circles indicate the non-yedoma lake (68.64°N, −149.61°W) near Toolik Field Station, Alaska, USA. Both lakes were thermally stratified, but the yedoma lake had an anaerobic hypolimnion with exceedingly high concentrations of DOC, SRP, DIN and other solutes (indicated by specific conductivity). In addition, the yedoma lake had a much lower light environment, a colder lake bottom temperature, lower pH, and relatively high concentrations of chlorophyll-a in the epilimnion and dissolved ions in the hypolimnion. The Toolik Field Station data were from ref. 60 and G. Kling (personal communication, 10 April 2013).

  5. Extended Data Figure 5: Organic carbon pools in the yedoma region. (124 KB)

    Our yedoma-region total organic carbon pool-size estimate (456±45Pg; Extended Data Table 3) is the sum of the following subset pools: (1) Holocene peat located above undisturbed yedoma permafrost; (2) yedoma that thawed, was reworked, and is now stored in thermokarst basins in facies F3 and F5; (3) taberite sediments representing in situ thawed, diagenetically altered yedoma in facies F6; (4) undisturbed yedoma in facies F7; (5) non-yedoma, Holocene* carbon stored in thermokarst basins in facies F1–F5 that was fixed via photosynthesis in and around the basins. Taberite deposits (red bar) are an important component of the yedoma-region total carbon pool that were not included in the recent yedoma-region carbon inventory of ref. 11.

Extended Data Tables

  1. Extended Data Table 1: Physical and chemical characteristics of facies in North Siberian permafrost exposures (300 KB)
  2. Extended Data Table 2: Organic carbon concentrations in yedoma (F7) and taberites (F6) and organic carbon bulk density from various subregions in North Siberia (200 KB)
  3. Extended Data Table 3: Calculations (a) and uncertainty analysis (b) of estimated carbon pool sizes and fluxes in the yedoma region (330 KB)
  4. Extended Data Table 4: Greenhouse gas parameters for atmospheric model (68 KB)
  5. Extended Data Table 5: Mean nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) concentrations in ice wedges, soils and present-day vegetation (207 KB)

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. Supplementary Information (1.1 MB)

    This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Tables 1-3, a Supplementary Discussion and Supplementary References. The Supplementary Methods contain detailed methodology for field and lab studies of permafrost exposures and present-day soils and vegetation, explanation of calculations, radiative forcing modeling, and uncertainty assessments. The Supplementary Discussion contains references for the regional data sets shown in Fig. 4, benthic moss peat accumulation in past and future lakes, and reconciliation of previous carbon-stock estimates for the yedoma region.

Additional data