Large quantities of organic carbon are stored in frozen soils (permafrost) within Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. A warming climate can induce environmental changes that accelerate the microbial breakdown of organic carbon and the release of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. This feedback can accelerate climate change, but the magnitude and timing of greenhouse gas emission from these regions and their impact on climate change remain uncertain. Here we find that current evidence suggests a gradual and prolonged release of greenhouse gas emissions in a warming climate and present a research strategy with which to target poorly understood aspects of permafrost carbon dynamics.
At a glance
- IPCC. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 1535 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013)
- Report from the International Permafrost Association: state of permafrost in the first decade of the 21st century. Permafr. Periglac. Process. 19, 255–260 (2008) &
- Thermal state of permafrost in Russia. Permafr. Periglac. Process. 21, 136–155 (2010) et al.
- http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/report11/ (2013) et al. Permafrost (Arctic Report Card 2011)
- Permafrost and the global carbon budget. Science 312, 1612–1613 (2006) , &
- Soil organic carbon pools in the northern circumpolar permafrost region. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 23, GB2023 (2009) et al.
- Vulnerability of permafrost carbon to climate change: implications for the global carbon cycle. Bioscience 58, 701–714 (2008) et al.
- Climate science: vast costs of Arctic change. Nature 499, 401–403 (2013) , &
- National Research Council. Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises (The National Academies Press, 2013)
- Short communication on network related activities: research coordination network on the vulnerability of permafrost carbon. Frozen Ground 37, 7 (2013) et al.
- Research coordination network on the vulnerability of permafrost carbon. Frozen Ground 35, 6 (2011) et al.
- Estimated stocks of circumpolar permafrost carbon with quantified uncertainty ranges and identified data gaps. Biogeosciences 11, 6573–6593 (2014)
Revised and updated current state of knowledge on permafrost soil organic carbon stocks at circumpolar scales.
- Permafrost carbon: stock and decomposability of a globally significant carbon pool. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L20502 (2006) et al.
- High stocks of soil organic carbon in the North American Arctic region. Nature Geosci. 1, 615–619 (2008) et al.
- Field information links permafrost carbon to physical vulnerabilities of thawing. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L15704 (2012)
Provides cumulative distributions of active layer thickness under current and future climates and estimates the amounts of newly thawed carbon and nitrogen.
- The deep permafrost carbon pool of the yedoma region in Siberia and Alaska. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 6165–6170 (2013)
Quantifies the organic carbon pool for yedoma deposits and thermokarst deposits in Siberia and Alaska.
- Distribution of late Pleistocene ice-rich syngenetic permafrost of the Yedoma Suite in east and central Siberia, Russia. US Geol. Surv. Open File Rep. 2013–1078, 1–37 (2013) et al.
- A shift of thermokarst lakes from carbon sources to sinks during the Holocene epoch. Nature 511, 452–456 (2014) et al.
- Empirical estimates to reduce modeling uncertainties of soil organic carbon in permafrost regions: a review of recent progress and remaining challenges. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 035020 (2013) et al.
- The Northern Circumpolar Soil Carbon Database: spatially distributed datasets of soil coverage and soil carbon storage in the northern permafrost regions. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 5, 3–13 (2013) et al.
- The vertical distribution of soil organic carbon and its relation to climate and vegetation. Ecol. Appl. 10, 423–436 (2000) &
- Late Quaternary paleoenvironmental records from the western Lena Delta, Arctic Siberia. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 299, 175–196 (2011) et al.
- Cryostratigraphy of late Pleistocene syngenetic permafrost (yedoma) in northern Alaska, Itkillik River exposure. Quat. Res. 75, 584–596 (2011) , , , &
- Fossil organic matter characteristics in permafrost deposits of the northeast Siberian Arctic. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 116, G00M02 (2011) et al.
- High-resolution mapping of ecosystem carbon storage and potential effects of permafrost thaw in periglacial terrain, European Russian Arctic. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 116, G03024 (2011) et al.
- Using the deuterium isotope composition of permafrost meltwater to constrain thermokarst lake contributions to atmospheric CH4 during the last deglaciation. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 117, G01022 (2012) et al.
- Sensitivity of the carbon cycle in the Arctic to climate change. Ecol. Monogr. 79, 523–555 (2009) et al.
- Thermokarst lakes as a source of atmospheric CH4 during the last deglaciation. Science 318, 633–636 (2007) , , , &
- Offshore permafrost and gas hydrate stability zone on the shelf of East Siberian seas. Geo-Mar. Lett. 25, 167–182 (2005) , , , &
- Modeling sub-sea permafrost in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf: the Laptev Sea region. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf. 117, F03028 (2012) et al.
- Potential carbon release from permafrost soils of Northeastern Siberia. Glob. Change Biol. 12, 2336–2351 (2006) , , &
- Predicting long-term carbon mineralization and trace gas production from thawing permafrost of Northeast Siberia. Glob. Change Biol. 19, 1160–1172 (2013) , , , &
- Long-term CO2 production following permafrost thaw. Nature Clim. Change 3, 890–894 (2013) et al.
- Will changes in soil organic carbon act as a positive or negative feedback on global warming? Biogeochemistry 48, 21–51 (2000)
- Temperature dependence of organic matter decomposition: a critical review using literature data analyzed with different models. Biol. Fertil. Soils 27, 258–262 (1998) , , &
- Circumpolar assessment of permafrost C quality and its vulnerability over time using long-term incubation data. Glob. Change Biol. 20, 641–652 (2014)
Synthesizes the decomposability of permafrost organic matter using incubation data and calculates potential carbon loss for high-latitude soils.
- A pan-Arctic synthesis of CH4 and CO2 production from anoxic soil incubations. Glob. Change Biol. doi:10.1111/gcb.12875. (in the press) et al.
- 659–740 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013) et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contributions of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.)
- Response of tundra CH4 and CO2 flux to manipulation of temperature and vegetation. Biogeochemistry 41, 215–235 (1998) , , &
- Environmental and physical controls on northern terrestrial methane emissions across permafrost zones. Glob. Change Biol. 19, 589–603 (2013)
Synthesis of data on growing-season CH4 emissions from terrestrial ecosystems across permafrost zones.
, , &
- Temperature and peat type control CO2 and CH4 production in Alaskan permafrost peats. Glob. Change Biol. 20, 2674–2686 (2014) et al.
- Presence of Eriophorum scheuchzeri enhances substrate availability and methane emission in an Arctic wetland. Soil Biol. Biochem. 45, 61–70 (2012) , , &
- Sensitivity of a model projection of near-surface permafrost degradation to soil column depth and representation of soil organic matter. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf. 113, F02011 (2008) , , &
- Analysis of permafrost thermal dynamics and response to climate change in the CMIP5 Earth system models. J. Clim. 26, 1877–1900 (2013)
Analysis of Earth system models projections of permafrost change in response to climate change scenarios.
- Permafrost carbon-climate feedbacks accelerate global warming. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 14769–14774 (2011) et al.
- Amount and timing of permafrost carbon release in response to climate warming. Tellus B 63, 165–180 (2011) , , &
- Estimating the near-surface permafrost-carbon feedback on global warming. Biogeosciences 9, 649–665 (2012) et al.
- Significant contribution to climate warming from the permafrost carbon feedback. Nature Geosci. 5, 719–721 (2012) , &
- Estimating the permafrost-carbon climate response in the CMIP5 climate models using a simplified approach. J. Clim. 26, 4897–4909 (2013) , &
- Contribution of permafrost soils to the global carbon budget. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 014026 (2013) et al.
- Uncertainties in the global temperature change caused by carbon release from permafrost thawing. Cryosphere 6, 1063–1076 (2012) , &
- CO2 and CH4 exchanges between land ecosystems and the atmosphere in northern high latitudes over the 21st century. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L17403 (2006) et al.
- the Permafrost Carbon Network. Climate change: high risk of permafrost thaw. Nature 480, 32–33 (2011) & &.
- Expert assessment of vulnerability of permafrost carbon to climate change. Clim. Change 119, 359–374 (2013)
State of knowledge on changes in permafrost distribution and soil organic carbon stocks in response to climate warming based on expert survey.
- The impact of the permafrost carbon feedback on global climate. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 085003 (2014) , , , &
- Simulation of present-day and future permafrost and seasonally frozen ground conditions in CCSM4. J. Clim. 25, 2207–2225 (2012) , &
- Diagnosing present and future permafrost from climate models. J. Clim. 26, 5608–5623 (2013) &
- Global warming and terrestrial ecosystems: a conceptual framework for analysis. Bioscience 50, 871–882 (2000) et al.
- Long-term warming restructures Arctic tundra without changing net soil carbon storage. Nature 497, 615–618 (2013) et al.
- Enhanced terrestrial carbon uptake in the northern high latitudes in the 21st century from the Coupled Carbon Cycle Climate Model Intercomparison Project model projections. Glob. Change Biol. 16, 641–656 (2010) , &
- The topographic form and evolution of thermal erosion features: A first analysis using airborne and ground-based LiDAR in Arctic Alaska. MSc thesis, Idaho State Univ. (2012)
- Abrupt increase in permafrost degradation in Arctic Alaska. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L02503 (2006) , &
- Thawing sub-arctic permafrost: effects on vegetation and methane emissions. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L04501 (2004) et al.
- Decadal vegetation changes in a northern peatland, greenhouse gas fluxes and net radiative forcing. Glob. Change Biol. 12, 2352–2369 (2006) et al.
- Characteristics of the recent warming of permafrost in Alaska. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf. 112, F02S02 (2007)
- Forests on thawing permafrost: fragmentation, edge effects, and net forest loss. Glob. Change Biol. 20, 824–834 (2014) , , , &
- Cumulative geoecological effects of 62 years of infrastructure and climate change in ice-rich permafrost landscapes, Prudhoe Bay Oilfield, Alaska. Glob. Change Biol. 20, 1211–1224 (2014) et al.
- Modern thermokarst lake dynamics in the continuous permafrost zone, northern Seward Peninsula, Alaska. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 116, G00M03 (2011) et al.
- Disappearing Arctic lakes. Science 308, 1429 (2005) , , &
- Shrinking ponds in subarctic Alaska based on 1950–2002 remotely sensed images. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 111, G04002 (2006) , &
- Mechanisms influencing changes in lake area in Alaskan boreal forest. Glob. Change Biol. 17, 2567–2583 (2011) , , &
- Warming-induced destabilization of peat plateau/thermokarst lake complexes. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 116, G03035 (2011) &
- Methane bubbling from Siberian thaw lakes as a positive feedback to climate warming. Nature 443, 71–75 (2006) , , , &
- Peat accumulation in drained thermokarst lake basins in continuous, ice-rich permafrost, northern Seward Peninsula, Alaska. J. Geophys. Res. 117, G00M07 (2012) , , &
- Increased CO2 loss from vegetated drained lake tundra ecosystems due to flooding. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 26, GB2004 (2012) et al.
- Permafrost conditions in peatlands regulate magnitude, timing, and chemical composition of catchment dissolved organic carbon export. Glob. Change Biol. 20, 3122–3136 (2014) &
- Differential mobilization of terrestrial carbon pools in Eurasian Arctic river basins. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 14168–14173 (2013) et al.
- Permafrost-carbon complexities. Nature Geosci. 6, 675–676 (2013) &
- High biolability of ancient permafrost carbon upon thaw. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 2689–2693 (2013) et al.
- Surface exposure to sunlight stimulates CO2 release from permafrost soil carbon in the Arctic. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 3429–3434 (2013) , , &
- Activation of old carbon by erosion of coastal and subsea permafrost in Arctic Siberia. Nature 489, 137–140 (2012) et al.
- Geochemical and geophysical evidence of methane release over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. J. Geophys. Res. Oceans 115, C08007 (2010) et al.
- Ebullition and storm-induced methane release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Nature Geosci. 7, 64–70 (2014)
Quantitative assessment of bubble-induced CH4 emissions resulting from subsea permafrost degradation in the coastal area.
- Recent changes in shelf hydrography in the Siberian Arctic: Potential for subsea permafrost instability. J. Geophys. Res. Oceans 116, C10027 (2011) et al.
- The impact of lower sea-ice extent on Arctic greenhouse-gas exchange. Nature Clim. Change 3, 195–202 (2013) et al.
- Arctic: uncertainties in methane link. Nature 500, 529–529 (2013) , &
- Arctic: speed of methane release. Nature 500, 529–529 (2013) &
- Global carbon budget 2013. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 6, 235–263 (2014) et al.
- Reduction in areal extent of high-latitude wetlands in response to permafrost thaw. Nature Geosci. 4, 444–448 (2011) , &
- Causes of variation in soil carbon simulations from CMIP5 Earth system models and comparison with observations. Biogeosciences 10, 1717–1736 (2013) et al.
- An assessment of the carbon balance of Arctic tundra: comparisons among observations, process models, and atmospheric inversions. Biogeosciences 9, 3185–3204 (2012) et al.
- Tundra ecosystems observed to be CO2 sources due to differential amplification of the carbon cycle. Ecol. Lett. 16, 1307–1315 (2013) , &
- Upscaling terrestrial carbon dioxide fluxes in Alaska with satellite remote sensing and support vector regression. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 118, 1266–1281 (2013) et al.
- National Research Council. Opportunities to Use Remote Sensing in Understanding Permafrost and Related Ecological Characteristics: Report of a Workshop http://dels.nationalacademies.org/Report/Opportunities-Remote-Sensing/18711 (The National Academies Press, 2014)
- 2012) , , & Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost (United Nations Environment Program,
- http://nsidc.org/data/docs/fgdc/ggd318_map_circumarctic/index.html (National Snow and Ice Data Center, 2002) , , & Circum-Arctic Map of Permafrost and Ground-Ice Conditions. Version 2,
- IPCC in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Solomon, S. D. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007)