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Long-term CO2 production following permafrost thaw

Nature Climate Change volume 3, pages 890894 (2013) | Download Citation


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.

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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.

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  1. Center for Permafrost (CENPERM), Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen, DK-1350 Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Bo Elberling
    • , Anders Michelsen
    • , Hanne H. Christiansen
    • , Louise Berg
    •  & Charlotte Sigsgaard
  2. Geology Department, The University Centre in Svalbard, UNIS, N-9171 Longyearbyen, Norway

    • Bo Elberling
    •  & Hanne H. Christiansen
  3. Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, DK-2100 Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Anders Michelsen
  4. Department of Biology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • Christina Schädel
    •  & Edward A. G. Schuur
  5. Department of Biosciences, Aarhus University, DK-4000, Roskilde, Denmark

    • Mikkel P. Tamstorf


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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.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Bo Elberling.

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