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Reduction in areal extent of high-latitude wetlands in response to permafrost thaw


Wetlands are vegetated regions that are inundated with water on a permanent, seasonal or intermittent basis1. These ecosystems play an important role in the carbon cycle: wetlands take up and store carbon, and release carbon dioxide and methane through the decomposition of organic matter2. More than 50% of wetlands are located in the high northern latitudes3, where permafrost also prevails and exerts a strong control on wetland hydrology4. Permafrost degradation is linked to changes in Arctic lakes: between 1973 and 2004 the abundance of lakes increased in continuous permafrost zones, but decreased in other zones5. Here, we use a global climate model to examine the influence of permafrost thaw on the prevalence of high-latitude northern wetlands, under four emissions scenarios. We show that as permafrost degrades, the areal extent of wetlands declines; we found a net loss in wetland extent in the three highest emissions scenarios. We also note an initial increase in the number of days of the year conducive to wetland formation, owing to an increase in unfrozen surface moisture resulting from a lengthening of the thaw season. This is followed by a dramatic decline in the number of wetland-conducive days, owing to a deepening of the permafrost surface, and drainage of near-surface moisture to deeper soil layers. We suggest that a reduction in the areal extent and duration of wetlands will influence high-latitude carbon emissions.

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Figure 1: Evolution of Northern Hemispere permafrost extent under RCP scenarios.
Figure 2: The UVic ESCM’s present-day distribution of wetlands as compared with observations.
Figure 3: Hovmöller diagrams showing the evolution of northern wetlands under four RCP forcing scenarios.
Figure 4: Evolution of near-surface soil moisture in a representative grid cell following the RCP 8.5 scenario.


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The authors wish to acknowledge the assistance of V. Arora, M. Eby, K. Zickfeld, E. Wiebe and R. Wania. We are grateful to the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences and the Australian Research Council for providing research support.

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C.A.A., A.J.W. and K.J.M. formulated the model experiments and wrote the paper. C.A.A. performed modifications to the ESCM, conducted the experiments and analysed the results.

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Correspondence to Christopher A. Avis.

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Avis, C., Weaver, A. & Meissner, K. Reduction in areal extent of high-latitude wetlands in response to permafrost thaw. Nature Geosci 4, 444–448 (2011).

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