Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Long-term CO2 production following permafrost thaw


Thawing permafrost represents a poorly understood feedback mechanism of climate change in the Arctic, but with a potential impact owing to stored carbon being mobilized1,2,3,4,5. We have quantified the long-term loss of carbon (C) from thawing permafrost in Northeast Greenland from 1996 to 2008 by combining repeated sediment sampling to assess changes in C stock and >12 years of CO2 production in incubated permafrost samples. Field observations show that the active-layer thickness has increased by >1 cm yr−1 but thawing has not resulted in a detectable decline in C stocks. Laboratory mineralization rates at 5 °C resulted in a C loss between 9 and 75%, depending on drainage, highlighting the potential of fast mobilization of permafrost C under aerobic conditions, but also that C at near-saturated conditions may remain largely immobilized over decades. This is confirmed by a three-pool C dynamics model that projects a potential C loss between 13 and 77% for 50 years of incubation at 5 °C.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Trends in permafrost thawing and soil organic C content.
Figure 2: C loss during a 12-year-long incubation at 5 °C.
Figure 3: C loss during a three-year-long incubation based on five sites


  1. Tarnocai, C. et al. Soil organic carbon pools in the northern circumpolar permafrost region. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycle 23, GB2023 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Schuur, E. A. G. et al. The effect of permafrost thaw on old carbon release and net carbon exchange from tundra. Nature 459, 556–559 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Schuur, E. A. G. et al. Vulnerability of permafrost carbon to climate change: Implications for the global carbon cycle. BioScience 58, 701–714 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Hollesen, J., Elberling, B. & Jansson, P. E. Future active layer dynamics and CO2 production from thawing permafrost layers in Northeast Greenland. Glob. Change Biol. 17, 911–926 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Elberling, B., Christiansen, H. H. & Hansen, B. U. High nitrous oxide production from thawing permafrost. Nature Geosci. 3, 332–335 (2010).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Knoblauch, C. et al. Predicting long-term carbon mineralization and trace gas production from thawing permafrost of Northeast Siberia. Glob. Change Biol. 19, 1160–1172 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Christiansen, H. H. et al. Permafrost and periglacial geomorphology at Zackenberg. Adv. Environ. Res. 40, 151–174 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Elberling, B. et al. Soil and plant community-characteristics and dynamics at Zackenberg. Adv. Environ. Res. 40, 223–248 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  9. Christiansen, H. H. et al. Holocene environmental reconstruction from deltaic deposits in northeast Greenland. J. Quat. Sci. 17, 145–160 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Christiansen, H. H. Nivation forms and processes in unconsolidated sediments, NE Greenland. Earth Surf. Process. Landf. 23, 751–760 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Cornelissen, J. H. C. et al. Global negative vegetation feedback to climate warming responses of leaf litter decomposition rates in cold biomes. Ecol. Lett. 10, 619–627 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Turetsky, M. R. et al. The disappearance of relict permafrost in boreal North America: Effects on peatland carbon storage and fluxes. Glob. Change Biol. 13, 1922–1934 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Lee, H. et al. The rate of permafrost carbon release under aerobic and anaerobic conditions and its potential effects on climate. Glob. Change Biol. 18, 515–527 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Schädel, C. et al. Separating soil CO2 efflux into C-pool-specific decay rates via inverse analysis of soil incubation data. Oecologia 171, 721–732 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Fang, C. & Moncrieff, J. B. The dependence of soil CO2 efflux on temperature. Soil Biol. Biochem. 33, 155–165 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We gratefully acknowledge financial support from the Danish National Research Foundation (CENPERM DNRF100), the European Union FP7-ENVIRONMENT project PAGE21 under contract no. GA282700, the Norwegian Research Council (TSP Norway grant no. 176033/S30), the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), the Danish Ministry for Climate, Energy and Building and the Zackenberg Research Station. Special thanks to the UNIS course AG-333 students for assisting with the permafrost coring in 2008 and to B. H. Jakobsen, who was involved in the initial sampling in 1996. The model used was developed by funds from NSF Bonanza Creek LTER, NSF CAREER, NSF RCN, Department of Energy NICCR and TEP, NSF Office of Polar Programs and the US National Parks Inventory and Monitoring Program.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



B.E. initiated the experimental work in 1996 and compiled data and wrote most of the paper; A.M. carried out most of the chemistry analyses, C.S and E.A.G.S. made the C dynamics model; B.E. and H.H.C. carried out the 2008 permafrost coring, L.B. was involved in the 2008 sampling and data analyses, H.H.C. initiated the 1996 ZEROCALM monitoring as part of the GeoBasis programme and M.P.T. and C.S. were responsible for CALM measurements as part of the GeoBasis programme. All co-authors contributed to the writing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Bo Elberling.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Elberling, B., Michelsen, A., Schädel, C. et al. Long-term CO2 production following permafrost thaw. Nature Clim Change 3, 890–894 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing