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Methane emissions from permafrost thaw lakes limited by lake drainage


Thaw lakes in permafrost areas are sources of the strong greenhouse gas methane1,2,3,4,5. They develop mostly in sedimentary lowlands with permafrost and a high excess ground ice volume, resulting in large areas covered with lakes and drained thaw-lake basins (DTLBs; refs 6, 7). Their expansion is enhanced by climate warming, which boosts methane emission and contributes a positive feedback to future climate change3,4,8. Modelling of thaw-lake growth is necessary to quantify this feedback. Here, we present a two-dimensional landscape-scale model that includes the entire life cycle of thaw lakes; initiation, expansion, drainage and eventual re-initiation. Application of our model to past and future lake expansion in northern Siberia shows that lake drainage strongly limits lake expansion, even under conditions of continuous permafrost. Our results suggest that methane emissions from thaw lakes in Siberia are an order of magnitude less alarming than previously suggested, although predicted lake expansion will still profoundly affect permafrost ecosystems and infrastructure.

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Figure 1: Schematic of the thaw-lake cycle model.
Figure 2: Simulated thawed area data for the test area.
Figure 3: Ensemble of thaw-lake model runs for climate change expected in the twenty first century.


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We acknowledge G. van der Werf for critically reading a first version of the manuscript. We thank our colleagues at the RAS Institute for Biological Problems of the Cryolithozone in Yakutsk (A. V. Kononov, S. V. Karsanaev) for facilitating fieldwork in the Siberian North. This research is financed by Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) Grant no. 815.01007 ‘Methane flux from northern wetlands at rapid climate change during the last glacial’ and NWO/Russian Federal Bureau of Research (RFBR) Dutch–Russian Scientific Cooperation Grant 047.017.037, and EU FP7 Marie Curie Research and Training Network GREENCYCLES II.

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Authors and Affiliations



All authors contributed to the analysis of model results, proposed modifications to the experiments and commented on the manuscript. J.v.H. constructed the model and conducted most of the model experiments. C.B. contributed to the text and the system analysis preceding the model construction. C.B. and F.J.W.P. collected the field data. A.J.D. contributed to the text. Y.M. did experiments with the future climate scenarios. T.C.M. facilitated fieldwork in the Siberian North and contributed with discussions on scientific results. A.J.D.

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Correspondence to J. van Huissteden.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Movie S1 (AVI 172960 kb)

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Model source code (ZIP 138 kb)

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van Huissteden, J., Berrittella, C., Parmentier, F. et al. Methane emissions from permafrost thaw lakes limited by lake drainage. Nature Clim Change 1, 119–123 (2011).

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