Potential carbon emissions dominated by carbon dioxide from thawed permafrost soils

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Volume:
6,
Pages:
950–953
Year published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nclimate3054
Received
Accepted
Published online

Increasing temperatures in northern high latitudes are causing permafrost to thaw1, making large amounts of previously frozen organic matter vulnerable to microbial decomposition2. Permafrost thaw also creates a fragmented landscape of drier and wetter soil conditions3, 4 that determine the amount and form (carbon dioxide (CO2), or methane (CH4)) of carbon (C) released to the atmosphere. The rate and form of C release control the magnitude of the permafrost C feedback, so their relative contribution with a warming climate remains unclear5, 6. We quantified the effect of increasing temperature and changes from aerobic to anaerobic soil conditions using 25 soil incubation studies from the permafrost zone. Here we show, using two separate meta-analyses, that a 10°C increase in incubation temperature increased C release by a factor of 2.0 (95% confidence interval (CI), 1.8 to 2.2). Under aerobic incubation conditions, soils released 3.4 (95% CI, 2.2 to 5.2) times more C than under anaerobic conditions. Even when accounting for the higher heat trapping capacity of CH4, soils released 2.3 (95% CI, 1.5 to 3.4) times more C under aerobic conditions. These results imply that permafrost ecosystems thawing under aerobic conditions and releasing CO2 will strengthen the permafrost C feedback more than waterlogged systems releasing CO2 and CH4 for a given amount of C.

At a glance

Figures

  1. Ratio of C release with a 10[thinsp][deg]C increase in incubation temperature.
    Figure 1: Ratio of C release with a 10°C increase in incubation temperature.

    Total C is the sum of CO2-C and CH4-C from aerobic and anaerobic incubations. Observations are split into different ecosystems, soil types and permafrost conditions. The numbers in brackets to the left represent numbers of observations for each subgroup. The numbers in brackets to the right represent the minimum and maximum range of the confidence interval for the ratio of soil C release in each ecosystem, soil type, and permafrost condition.

  2. Ratio of C release from permafrost-affected soils comparing aerobic to anaerobic incubation conditions.
    Figure 2: Ratio of C release from permafrost-affected soils comparing aerobic to anaerobic incubation conditions.

    Total C is the sum of CO2-C and CH4-C whereas total CO2-C equivalent is the sum of CO2-C and CH4-C expressed as CO2-C equivalent (accounts for the higher GWP of CH4). Observations are split into different ecosystems, soil types and permafrost conditions. The numbers in brackets to the left represent numbers of observations for each subgroup. The numbers in brackets to the right represent the minimum and maximum range of the confidence interval for the ratio of soil C release in each ecosystem, soil type, and permafrost condition. The arrow indicates that the confidence interval (CI) is wider than the space.

  3. Contribution of CH4-C to total anaerobic C release for boreal forest, peatland and tundra ecosystems.
    Figure 3: Contribution of CH4-C to total anaerobic C release for boreal forest, peatland and tundra ecosystems.

    Symbols represent observations from different studies and the error bars show standard deviation within an observation. Lines represent the average predicted relationship between CH4-C contributions to total anaerobic C release and incubation temperature for the three given ecosystems.

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Author information

Affiliations

  1. Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011, USA

    • Christina Schädel &
    • Edward A. G. Schuur
  2. New Zealand Forest Research Institute, Rotorua 3046, New Zealand

    • Martin K.-F. Bader
  3. Department of Environmental and Biological Sciences, University of Eastern Finland, 70211 Kuopio, Finland

    • Christina Biasi &
    • Pertti J. Martikainen
  4. Department of Biology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • Rosvel Bracho
  5. School of Forest Resources and Conservation, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • Rosvel Bracho
  6. University of South Bohemia, Faculty of Science, České Budĕjovice 37005, Czech Republic

    • Petr Čapek,
    • Kateřina Diáková &
    • Hana Šantrůčková
  7. Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4RJ, UK

    • Sarah De Baets,
    • Cristian Estop-Aragones &
    • Iain P. Hartley
  8. CSIRO Agriculture, Urrbrae 5064, Australia

    • Jessica Ernakovich
  9. Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2H1, Canada

    • Cristian Estop-Aragones
  10. Biosciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37830, USA

    • David E. Graham &
    • Taniya Roy Chowdhury
  11. Environmental Sciences Division and Climate Change Science Institute, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37831, USA

    • Colleen M. Iversen,
    • Richard J. Norby &
    • Victoria L. Sloan
  12. School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Michigan 39931, USA

    • Evan Kane
  13. Institute of Soil Science, Universität Hamburg, 20146 Hamburg, Germany

    • Christian Knoblauch
  14. Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, Singapore 119077, Singapore

    • Massimo Lupascu
  15. Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, Massachusetts 02540, USA

    • Susan M. Natali
  16. Arctic Network, National Park Service, Anchorage, Alaska 99501, USA

    • Jonathan A. O’Donnell
  17. The Ecosystem Center, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA

    • Gaius Shaver
  18. Institute of Northern Engineering, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, USA

    • Claire C. Treat
  19. Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario N1G 2W1, Canada

    • Merritt R. Turetsky
  20. US Geological Survey, Menlo Park, California 94025, USA

    • Mark P. Waldrop
  21. US Geological Survey, Boulder, Colorado 80303, USA

    • Kimberly P. Wickland

Contributions

C.S. designed the study together with E.A.G.S.; C.S. compiled the database and extracted data from the literature with help from M.L. and S.M.N. M.K.-F.B. and C.S. performed the analysis. C.S. wrote the manuscript. All other authors either contributed data and provided input to the manuscript, or performed essential tasks in the field and laboratory for the included data sets.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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