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Activation of old carbon by erosion of coastal and subsea permafrost in Arctic Siberia


The future trajectory of greenhouse gas concentrations depends on interactions between climate and the biogeosphere1,2. Thawing of Arctic permafrost could release significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere in this century3. Ancient Ice Complex deposits outcropping along the 7,000-kilometre-long coastline of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS)4,5, and associated shallow subsea permafrost6,7, are two large pools of permafrost carbon8, yet their vulnerabilities towards thawing and decomposition are largely unknown9,10,11. Recent Arctic warming is stronger than has been predicted by several degrees, and is particularly pronounced over the coastal ESAS region12,13. There is thus a pressing need to improve our understanding of the links between permafrost carbon and climate in this relatively inaccessible region. Here we show that extensive release of carbon from these Ice Complex deposits dominates (57 ± 2 per cent) the sedimentary carbon budget of the ESAS, the world’s largest continental shelf, overwhelming the marine and topsoil terrestrial components. Inverse modelling of the dual-carbon isotope composition of organic carbon accumulating in ESAS surface sediments, using Monte Carlo simulations to account for uncertainties, suggests that 44 ± 10 teragrams of old carbon is activated annually from Ice Complex permafrost, an order of magnitude more than has been suggested by previous studies14. We estimate that about two-thirds (66 ± 16 per cent) of this old carbon escapes to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, with the remainder being re-buried in shelf sediments. Thermal collapse and erosion of these carbon-rich Pleistocene coastline and seafloor deposits may accelerate with Arctic amplification of climate warming2,13.

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Figure 1: Erosion of Ice Complex deposits on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.
Figure 2: Carbon isotope compositions and contribution of organic carbon sources to sediment accumulation on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.
Figure 3: Biogeochemical signals of Ice Complex organic matter degradation on Muostakh Island.


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We thank all ISSS-08 colleagues and crew, in particular M. Kruså, P. Andersson and V. Mordukhovich, who helped with sampling. The ISSS program is supported by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Swedish Research Council, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Russian Foundation of Basic Research, the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat and the Nordic Council of Ministers (Arctic Co-Op and TRI-DEFROST programs). Ö.G. and L.S.-G. acknowledge an Academy Research Fellow grant from the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences and an EU Marie Curie grant, respectively. N.S. and I.P.S. acknowledge grants from the US National Science Foundation and the NOAA OAR Climate Program Office.

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All authors except P.R., T.I.E. and A.A. collected samples. Preparations for bulk organic carbon analyses, stable isotope analysis and radiocarbon analyses were made by J.E.V. (sediments) and L.S.-G. (Ice Complex samples). Radiocarbon analyses on sediments were facilitated by T.I.E. L.S.-G. analysed lipid biomarkers in Muostakh Island samples. A.A. was responsible for the Monte Carlo simulations. Radiochronological measurements on sediment cores were made by P.R. and at Stockholm University. J.E.V. performed data analyses and flux calculations. J.E.V., L.S.-G. and Ö.G. wrote the paper, with input from N.S., I.P.S. and all other authors.

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Correspondence to Ö. Gustafsson.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Vonk, J., Sánchez-García, L., van Dongen, B. et al. Activation of old carbon by erosion of coastal and subsea permafrost in Arctic Siberia. Nature 489, 137–140 (2012).

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