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


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 5,000 years 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 160 petagrams 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.

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Figure 1: Carbon cycling during the development of deep thermokarst lakes.
Figure 2: Facies description and carbon contents in the deep thermokarst-lake landscape.
Figure 3: Thermokarst-lake carbon cycling dynamic since the last deglaciation.
Figure 4: Comparison of long-term organic carbon accumulation rates among northern lakes and peatlands by mean annual temperature.


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We thank L. Brosius, K. Davies, L. Farquharson, J. Neff and N. Zimov for assistance with field and laboratory work; G. Kling for p CO 2 and DOC data sets for Lake N1 (Alaska); and E. A. G. Schuur, B. Gaglioti, C. Bernhardt and S. Neuzil for constructive comments on the manuscript. Research funding was provided by the NSF (OPP-0099113, OPP-0732735 and ARC-1304823) and NASA (NNX08AJ37G). Additional support was received from other NSF projects (OPP-1107892, OPP-6737545, PLR-1303940), the USGS, the DOE (DE-SC0010580) and ERC number 338335.

Author information




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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to K. M. Walter Anthony.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 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.

Extended Data Figure 2 Relative contributions of facies F1–F6 to the average organic carbon content within the surface 10 m 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 (925,400 km2, Supplementary Information section 1.6.1), we estimate the following Holocene* carbon pool sizes in the alases: 12 ± 2.5 Pg for 0–0.3 m, 36 ± 4.1 Pg for 0–1 m, 64 ± 4.3 Pg for 0–2 m, 89 ± 6.6 Pg for 0–3 m, 126 ± 9.0 Pg for 0–5 m, 144 ± 10.1 Pg for 0–7 m and 155 ± 11.6 Pg for 0–10 m. 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 10 m, extrapolating our observation of Holocene* carbon in 7% of exposures, we estimate an additional 5 Pg C. 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).

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.

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).

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.

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).

Extended Data Figure 5 Organic carbon pools in the yedoma region.

Our yedoma-region total organic carbon pool-size estimate (456 ± 45 Pg; 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 Table 1 Physical and chemical characteristics of facies in North Siberian permafrost exposures
Extended Data Table 2 Organic carbon concentrations in yedoma (F7) and taberites (F6) and organic carbon bulk density from various subregions in North Siberia
Extended Data Table 3 Calculations (a) and uncertainty analysis (b) of estimated carbon pool sizes and fluxes in the yedoma region
Extended Data Table 4 Greenhouse gas parameters for atmospheric model
Extended Data Table 5 Mean nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) concentrations in ice wedges, soils and present-day vegetation

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

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. (PDF 1225 kb)

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Anthony, K., Zimov, S., Grosse, G. et al. A shift of thermokarst lakes from carbon sources to sinks during the Holocene epoch. Nature 511, 452–456 (2014).

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