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Permafrost collapse after shrub removal shifts tundra ecosystem to a methane source


Arctic tundra ecosystems are warming almost twice as fast as the global average1. Permafrost thaw and the resulting release of greenhouse gases from decomposing soil organic carbon have the potential to accelerate climate warming2,3. In recent decades, Arctic tundra ecosystems have changed rapidly4, including expansion of woody vegetation5,6, in response to changing climate conditions. How such vegetation changes contribute to stabilization or destabilization of the permafrost is unknown. Here we present six years of field observations in a shrub removal experiment at a Siberian tundra site. Removing the shrub part of the vegetation initiated thawing of ice-rich permafrost, resulting in collapse of the originally elevated shrub patches into waterlogged depressions within five years. This thaw pond development shifted the plots from a methane sink into a methane source. The results of our field experiment demonstrate the importance of the vegetation cover for protection of the massive carbon reservoirs stored in the permafrost and illustrate the strong vulnerability of these tundra ecosystems to perturbations. If permafrost thawing can more frequently trigger such local permafrost collapse, methane-emitting wet depressions could become more abundant in the lowland tundra landscape, at the cost of permafrost-stabilizing low shrub vegetation.

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Figure 1: Late-July active layer thickness in control and B. nana removal plots from 2007 to 2012.
Figure 2: Relative surface elevation in control and B. nana removal plots.
Figure 3: Relative surface elevation, snow depth, groundwater level and methane flux in control and B. nana removal plots in 2012.
Figure 4: How elevated shrub patches turned into graminoid-dominated wet depressions after removal of B. nana shrubs.


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We thank T. Strukova, S. Ianygin, A. Kononov, D. Suzdalov and S. Karsanaev for logistic support and assistance at the field site. We acknowledge support by Darwin Center for Biogeosciences (projects 1043 and 3052), The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (Vidi-project 864.09.014), Wageningen Institute for Environment and Climate Research (WIMEK), Danish National Research Foundation (CENPERM DNRF100) and the EU Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013).

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F.B., M.M.P.D.H., D.B. and A.L.N. conceived the project; all authors contributed to the field work; A.L.N. and D.B. analysed the data; M.M.P.D.H., A.L.N., D.B. and J.L. wrote the manuscript with contributions from B.E., F.B. and J.v.H.

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Correspondence to Monique M. P. D. Heijmans.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Nauta, A., Heijmans, M., Blok, D. et al. Permafrost collapse after shrub removal shifts tundra ecosystem to a methane source. Nature Clim Change 5, 67–70 (2015).

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