Letter | Published:

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

Nature volume 511, pages 452456 (24 July 2014) | Download Citation


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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We thank L. Brosius, K. Davies, L. Farquharson, J. Neff and N. Zimov for assistance with field and laboratory work; G. Kling for pCO2 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

Author notes

    • G. Grosse

    Present address: Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Potsdam 14473, Germany.


  1. Water and Environmental Research Center, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775-5860, USA

    • K. M. Walter Anthony
    • , M. C. Jones
    •  & P. M. Anthony
  2. Northeast Scientific Station, Pacific Institute for Geography, Far-East Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences, Cherskii 678830, Russia

    • S. A. Zimov
    •  & S. Davydov
  3. Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775-7320, USA

    • G. Grosse
  4. US Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia 20192, USA

    • M. C. Jones
  5. Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775-7000, USA

    • F. S. Chapin III
  6. Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55108, USA

    • J. C. Finlay
  7. Department of Biology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • M. C. Mack
  8. Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology, Marburg 35043, Germany

    • P. Frenzel
  9. Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire 03824-3525, USA

    • S. Frolking


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to K. M. Walter Anthony.

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  1. 1.

    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.

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