Abstract

Increasing temperatures in northern high latitudes are causing permafrost to thaw1, making large amounts of previously frozen organic matter vulnerable to microbial decomposition2. Permafrost thaw also creates a fragmented landscape of drier and wetter soil conditions3,4 that determine the amount and form (carbon dioxide (CO2), or methane (CH4)) of carbon (C) released to the atmosphere. The rate and form of C release control the magnitude of the permafrost C feedback, so their relative contribution with a warming climate remains unclear5,6. We quantified the effect of increasing temperature and changes from aerobic to anaerobic soil conditions using 25 soil incubation studies from the permafrost zone. Here we show, using two separate meta-analyses, that a 10 °C increase in incubation temperature increased C release by a factor of 2.0 (95% confidence interval (CI), 1.8 to 2.2). Under aerobic incubation conditions, soils released 3.4 (95% CI, 2.2 to 5.2) times more C than under anaerobic conditions. Even when accounting for the higher heat trapping capacity of CH4, soils released 2.3 (95% CI, 1.5 to 3.4) times more C under aerobic conditions. These results imply that permafrost ecosystems thawing under aerobic conditions and releasing CO2 will strengthen the permafrost C feedback more than waterlogged systems releasing CO2 and CH4 for a given amount of C.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank B. Robinson for assistance with meta-data extraction and J. Barta and I. Kohoutova for help with generating incubation data. Financial support was provided by the National Science Foundation Vulnerability of Permafrost Carbon Research Coordination Network Grant no. 955713 with continued support from the National Science Foundation Research Synthesis, and Knowledge Transfer in a Changing Arctic: Science Support for the Study of Environmental Arctic Change Grant no. 1331083. Author contributions were also supported by grants to individuals: Department of Energy, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Terrestrial Ecosystem Science (TES) Program (DE-SC0006982) to E.A.G.S.; UK Natural Environment Research Council funding to I.P.H. and C.E.-A. (NE/K000179/1); German Research Foundation (DFG, Excellence cluster CliSAP) to C.K.; Department of Ecosystem Biology, Grant agency of South Bohemian University, GAJU project no. 146/2013/P and GAJU project no. 146/2013/D to H.S.; National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs (1312402) to S.M.N.; National Science Foundation Division of Environmental Biology (0423385) and National Science Foundation Division of Environmental Biology (1026843), both to the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts; additionally, the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments in the Arctic (NGEE Arctic) project is supported by the Biological and Environmental Research programme in the US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by UT-Battelle, LLC, for the DOE under Contract no. DE-AC05-00OR22725. Support for C.B. came from European Union (FP-7-ENV-2011, project PAGE21, contract no. 282700), Academy of Finland (project CryoN, decision no. 132 045), Academy of Finland (project COUP, decision no. 291691; part of the European Union Joint Programming Initiative, JPI Climate), strategic funding of the University of Eastern Finland (project FiWER) and Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation and for P.J.M. from Nordic Center of Excellence (project DeFROST).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011, USA

    • Christina Schädel
    •  & Edward A. G. Schuur
  2. New Zealand Forest Research Institute, Rotorua 3046, New Zealand

    • Martin K.-F. Bader
  3. Department of Environmental and Biological Sciences, University of Eastern Finland, 70211 Kuopio, Finland

    • Christina Biasi
    •  & Pertti J. Martikainen
  4. Department of Biology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • Rosvel Bracho
  5. School of Forest Resources and Conservation, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • Rosvel Bracho
  6. University of South Bohemia, Faculty of Science, České Budĕjovice 37005, Czech Republic

    • Petr Čapek
    • , Kateřina Diáková
    •  & Hana Šantrůčková
  7. Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4RJ, UK

    • Sarah De Baets
    • , Cristian Estop-Aragones
    •  & Iain P. Hartley
  8. CSIRO Agriculture, Urrbrae 5064, Australia

    • Jessica Ernakovich
  9. Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2H1, Canada

    • Cristian Estop-Aragones
  10. Biosciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37830, USA

    • David E. Graham
    •  & Taniya Roy Chowdhury
  11. Environmental Sciences Division and Climate Change Science Institute, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37831, USA

    • Colleen M. Iversen
    • , Richard J. Norby
    •  & Victoria L. Sloan
  12. School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Michigan 39931, USA

    • Evan Kane
  13. Institute of Soil Science, Universität Hamburg, 20146 Hamburg, Germany

    • Christian Knoblauch
  14. Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, Singapore 119077, Singapore

    • Massimo Lupascu
  15. Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, Massachusetts 02540, USA

    • Susan M. Natali
  16. Arctic Network, National Park Service, Anchorage, Alaska 99501, USA

    • Jonathan A. O’Donnell
  17. The Ecosystem Center, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA

    • Gaius Shaver
  18. Institute of Northern Engineering, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, USA

    • Claire C. Treat
  19. Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario N1G 2W1, Canada

    • Merritt R. Turetsky
  20. US Geological Survey, Menlo Park, California 94025, USA

    • Mark P. Waldrop
  21. US Geological Survey, Boulder, Colorado 80303, USA

    • Kimberly P. Wickland

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Contributions

C.S. designed the study together with E.A.G.S.; C.S. compiled the database and extracted data from the literature with help from M.L. and S.M.N. M.K.-F.B. and C.S. performed the analysis. C.S. wrote the manuscript. All other authors either contributed data and provided input to the manuscript, or performed essential tasks in the field and laboratory for the included data sets.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christina Schädel.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3054

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