Decadal soil carbon accumulation across Tibetan permafrost regions

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
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Published online


Permafrost soils store large amounts of carbon. Warming can result in carbon release from thawing permafrost, but it can also lead to enhanced primary production, which can increase soil carbon stocks. The balance of these fluxes determines the nature of the permafrost feedback to warming. Here we assessed decadal changes in soil organic carbon stocks in the active layer—the uppermost 30cm—of permafrost soils across Tibetan alpine regions, based on repeated soil carbon measurements in the early 2000s and 2010s at the same sites. We observed an overall accumulation of soil organic carbon irrespective of vegetation type, with a mean rate of 28.0gCm−2yr−1 across Tibetan permafrost regions. This soil organic carbon accrual occurred only in the subsurface soil, between depths of 10 and 30cm, mainly induced by an increase of soil organic carbon concentrations. We conclude that the upper active layer of Tibetan alpine permafrost currently represents a substantial regional soil carbon sink in a warming climate, implying that carbon losses of deeper and older permafrost carbon might be offset by increases in upper-active-layer soil organic carbon stocks, which probably results from enhanced vegetation growth.

At a glance


  1. Changes in soil organic carbon density ([Delta]SOCD) at 0-30[thinsp]cm depth from the 2000s to 2010s across Tibetan permafrost regions.
    Figure 1: Changes in soil organic carbon density (ΔSOCD) at 0–30cm depth from the 2000s to 2010s across Tibetan permafrost regions.

    Relative change rate in SOCD (in units of % yr−1, coloured in blue) was calculated as the ratio of the absolute change rate (in units of gCm−2yr−1, coloured in red) to the mean SOCD over the study period. AS, alpine steppe; AM, alpine meadow. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals (CI).

  2. Changes in soil organic carbon density ([Delta]SOCD) at different soil depths from the 2000s to 2010s across Tibetan permafrost regions.
    Figure 2: Changes in soil organic carbon density (ΔSOCD) at different soil depths from the 2000s to 2010s across Tibetan permafrost regions.

    Relative change rate in SOCD (in units of % yr−1, b) was calculated as the ratio of the absolute change rate (in units of gCm−2yr−1, a) to the mean SOCD over the study period. AS, alpine steppe; AM, alpine meadow. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals (CI).

  3. Changes in bulk density ([Delta]BD) and soil organic carbon concentration ([Delta]SOCC) from the 2000s to 2010s across Tibetan permafrost regions.
    Figure 3: Changes in bulk density (ΔBD) and soil organic carbon concentration (ΔSOCC) from the 2000s to 2010s across Tibetan permafrost regions.

    AS, alpine steppe; AM, alpine meadow. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals (CI).


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Author information


  1. State Key Laboratory of Vegetation and Environmental Change, Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100093, China

    • Jinzhi Ding,
    • Leiyi Chen,
    • Li Liu,
    • Shuqi Qin,
    • Beibei Zhang,
    • Guibiao Yang,
    • Fei Li,
    • Kai Fang,
    • Yongliang Chen,
    • Yunfeng Peng,
    • Xia Zhao,
    • Jingyun Fang &
    • Yuanhe Yang
  2. University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China

    • Jinzhi Ding,
    • Li Liu,
    • Shuqi Qin,
    • Guibiao Yang,
    • Fei Li,
    • Kai Fang &
    • Yuanhe Yang
  3. Department of Ecology, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, and Key Laboratory for Earth Surface Processes of the Ministry of Education, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China

    • Chengjun Ji &
    • Jingyun Fang
  4. Department of Physical Geography, Stockholm University, Stockholm 106 91, Sweden

    • Gustaf Hugelius
  5. Department of Earth System Science, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Gustaf Hugelius
  6. Key Laboratory of Adaptation and Evolution of Plateau Biota, Northwest Institute of Plateau Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Xining, Qinghai 810008, China

    • Yingnian Li
  7. Key Laboratory of Ecosystem Network Observation and Modeling, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China

    • Honglin He
  8. Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, School of Biological Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB24 3UU, UK

    • Pete Smith


Y.Y. conceived and designed the experiment. J.D., Y.Y., C.J., G.Y., F.L., K.F. Y.C. and J.F. collected samples in the field. J.D., L.L., S.Q., B.Z. and K.F. processed and analysed samples in the lab. Y.L. and H.H. provided long-term biomass monitoring data, and eddy-covariance flux data set. X.Z. provided the NDVI data. J.D., Y.Y. and L.C. analysed the data. J.D., Y.Y. and L.C. drafted the manuscript. G.H., Y.P., P.S. and J.F. contributed to the revision of the manuscript. All authors commented on the analysis and presentation of the results.

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