Letter | Published:

Methane emissions proportional to permafrost carbon thawed in Arctic lakes since the 1950s

Nature Geoscience volume 9, pages 679682 (2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

Permafrost thaw exposes previously frozen soil organic matter to microbial decomposition. This process generates methane and carbon dioxide, and thereby fuels a positive feedback process that leads to further warming and thaw1. Despite widespread permafrost degradation during the past 40 years2,3,4, the degree to which permafrost thaw may be contributing to a feedback between warming and thaw in recent decades is not well understood. Radiocarbon evidence of modern emissions of ancient permafrost carbon is also sparse5. Here we combine radiocarbon dating of lake bubble trace-gas methane (113 measurements) and soil organic carbon (289 measurements) for lakes in Alaska, Canada, Sweden and Siberia with numerical modelling of thaw and remote sensing of thermokarst shore expansion. Methane emissions from thermokarst areas of lakes that have expanded over the past 60 years were directly proportional to the mass of soil carbon inputs to the lakes from the erosion of thawing permafrost. Radiocarbon dating indicates that methane age from lakes is nearly identical to the age of permafrost soil carbon thawing around them. Based on this evidence of landscape-scale permafrost carbon feedback, we estimate that 0.2 to 2.5 Pg permafrost carbon was released as methane and carbon dioxide in thermokarst expansion zones of pan-Arctic lakes during the past 60 years.

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Acknowledgements

We thank B. Jones at the USGS for contributions to remote sensing data sets and for providing valuable comments on the manuscript, C. Koven for model data contributions in Fig. 3, and Ted Schuur for assistance with AMS radiocarbon dating. This work was supported by the NSF ARC-1304823, NASA ABoVE NNX15AU49A, NSF OPP-1107892, NSF ARCSS 1500931, USDA-Hatch, US Department of Energy DESC0010580 and ERC.

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Affiliations

  1. Water and Environmental Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 999775, USA

    • Katey Walter Anthony
    •  & Peter Anthony
  2. Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Fairbanks, Alaska 999775, USA

    • Ronald Daanen
  3. Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, 14473 Potsdam, Germany

    • Thomas Schneider von Deimling
    •  & Guido Grosse
  4. Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, 20146 Hamburg, Germany

    • Thomas Schneider von Deimling
  5. School of Natural Resources and Extension, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 999775, USA

    • Chien-Lu Ping
  6. Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida 32306, USA

    • Jeffrey P. Chanton

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Contributions

K.W.A. conceived of the study and wrote the paper. K.W.A., P.A., C.-L.P. and G.G. conducted field and lab work. R.D. and T.S.v.D. performed numerical modelling. Isotopic analyses were conducted in the laboratory of J.P.C. All authors commented on the analysis, interpretation and presentation of the data, and were involved in the writing.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Katey Walter Anthony.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2795

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