Permafrost thawing in organic Arctic soils accelerated by ground heat production


Decomposition of organic carbon from thawing permafrost soils and the resulting release of carbon to the atmosphere are considered to represent a potentially critical global-scale feedback on climate change1,2. The accompanying heat production from microbial metabolism of organic material has been recognized as a potential positive-feedback mechanism that would enhance permafrost thawing and the release of carbon3,4. This internal heat production is poorly understood, however, and the strength of this effect remains unclear3. Here, we have quantified the variability of heat production in contrasting organic permafrost soils across Greenland and tested the hypothesis that these soils produce enough heat to reach a tipping point after which internal heat production can accelerate the decomposition processes. Results show that the impact of climate changes on natural organic soils can be accelerated by microbial heat production with crucial implications for the amounts of carbon being decomposed. The same is shown to be true for organic middens5 with the risk of losing unique evidence of early human presence in the Arctic.

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Figure 1: Study site locations.
Figure 2: Heat production during incubation at 16 °C.
Figure 3: Simulated soil temperatures.
Figure 4: Simulated organic carbon loss in the Disko Bay area.


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We gratefully acknowledge the financial support from the Danish National Research Foundation (CENPERM DNRF100), from the Augustinus foundation (Northern Worlds) and the Carlsberg Foundation (J.H._2012_01_0286). We acknowledge the Zackenberg Basic programme for providing meteorological data and extend our gratitude to P. E. Jansson from the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm Sweden.

Author information

B.E. and H.M. initiated the collaboration project; B.E., J.H. and H.M. collected samples and performed fieldwork. J.H. and A.B.M. performed laboratory investigations, and J.H. compiled and analysed the data and performed the modelling. J.H. and B.E. wrote the paper with input from all co-authors.

Correspondence to Bo Elberling.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Hollesen, J., Matthiesen, H., Møller, A. et al. Permafrost thawing in organic Arctic soils accelerated by ground heat production. Nature Clim Change 5, 574–578 (2015).

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