Abstract

Large quantities of organic carbon are stored in frozen soils (permafrost) within Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. A warming climate can induce environmental changes that accelerate the microbial breakdown of organic carbon and the release of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. This feedback can accelerate climate change, but the magnitude and timing of greenhouse gas emission from these regions and their impact on climate change remain uncertain. Here we find that current evidence suggests a gradual and prolonged release of greenhouse gas emissions in a warming climate and present a research strategy with which to target poorly understood aspects of permafrost carbon dynamics.

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Acknowledgements

Initial funding was provided by the National Science Foundation Vulnerability of Permafrost Carbon Research Coordination Network Grant number 955713, with continued support from the National Science Foundation Research, Synthesis, and Knowledge Transfer in a Changing Arctic: Science Support for the Study of Environmental Arctic Change Grant number 1331083. Author contributions were also supported by grants to individuals: Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Sciences Division Terrestrial Ecosystem Sciences program (DE-SC0006982) to E.A.G.S.; National Science Foundation Long Term Ecological Research Program (1026415) to A.D.M.; Department of Energy (DE-AC02-05CH11231, NGEE Arctic, BGC-Feedbacks SFA) to C.D.K.; Regional and Global Climate Modeling Program (RGCM) of the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science (BER) Cooperative Agreement (DE-FC02-97ER62402) to D.M.L.; European Research Commission (338335) to G.G.; The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (863.12.004) to J.E.V.; National Science Foundation Polar Programs (1312402) to S.M.N.; National Science Foundation Polar Programs (856864 and 1304271) to V.E.R.; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NA09OAR4310063) and National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NNX10AR63G) to K.S.; Nordforsk (DEFROST; 23001), EU FP7 (PAGE21; 282700) and FORMAS (Bolin Climate Research Centre; 214-2006-1749) to G.H. and P.K.; Department of Energy Biological and Environmental Research (3ERKP818) to D.J.H.; National Science Foundation, Division of Environmental Biology (724514, 830997) to M.R.T. and A.D.M.; U.S. Geological Survey Climate and Land Use Program to J.W.H. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Center for Ecosystem Science and Society and Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011, USA

    • E. A. G. Schuur
    •  & C. Schädel
  2. Department of Biology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • E. A. G. Schuur
    •  & C. Schädel
  3. US Geological Survey, Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, USA

    • A. D. McGuire
  4. Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, 14473 Potsdam, Germany

    • G. Grosse
  5. US Geological Survey, Menlo Park, California 94025, USA

    • J. W. Harden
  6. Climate Change Science Institute and Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37831, USA

    • D. J. Hayes
  7. Department of Physical Geography, Stockholm University, 10691 Stockholm, Sweden

    • G. Hugelius
    •  & P. Kuhry
  8. Earth Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • C. D. Koven
  9. National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado 80305, USA

    • D. M. Lawrence
  10. Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, Massachusetts 02540, USA

    • S. M. Natali
  11. Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario N1G 2W1, Canada

    • D. Olefeldt
    •  & M. R. Turetsky
  12. Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2H1, Canada

    • D. Olefeldt
  13. Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, USA

    • V. E. Romanovsky
  14. Tyumen State Oil and Gas University, Tyumen, Tyumen Oblast 625000, Russia

    • V. E. Romanovsky
  15. National Snow and Ice Data Center, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA

    • K. Schaefer
  16. Earth Systems Research Center, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire 03824, USA

    • C. C. Treat
  17. Department of Earth Sciences, Utrecht University, 3584 CD Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • J. E. Vonk

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Contributions

This manuscript arose from the collective effort of the Permafrost Carbon Network (http://www.permafrostcarbon.org); all authors are working group leaders within the network. E.A.G.S. and A.D.M. wrote the initial draft, with additional contributions from all authors. C.S. provided assistance with final editing and submission of the manuscript, and helped to organise the Permafrost Carbon Network activities that made this possible. Figure 1 was prepared by G.H., Fig. 2 by C.S., Fig. 3 by K.S., Fig. 4 by G.G. and the Box 1 Figure by E.A.G.S.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to E. A. G. Schuur.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14338

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