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High nitrous oxide production from thawing permafrost


A Corrigendum to this article was published on 01 July 2010

This article has been updated


Permafrost soils contain nearly twice as much carbon as the atmosphere1. When these soils thaw, large quantities of carbon are lost, mainly in the form of methane and carbon dioxide1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. In contrast, thawing is thought to have little impact on nitrous oxide emissions, which remain minimal following the summer thaw4. Here, we examined the impact of thawing on nitrous oxide production in permafrost cores collected from a heath site and a wetland site in Zackenberg, Greenland. Rates of nitrous oxide production in the heath soil were minimal, regardless of the hydrological conditions. Although rates of nitrous oxide production in the wetland soil were low following thawing, averaging 1.37 μg N h−1 kg−1, they were 18 μg N h−1 kg−1 for permafrost samples following thawing, drainage and rewetting with the original meltwater. We show that 31% of the nitrous oxide produced after thawing and rewetting a 10-cm permafrost core—equivalent to 34 mg N m−2 d−1—was released to the atmosphere; this is equivalent to daily nitrous oxide emissions from tropical forests on a mean annual basis 10. Measurements of nitrous oxide production in permafrost samples from five additional wetland sites in the high Arctic indicate that the rates of nitrous oxide production observed in the Zackenberg soils may be in the low range.

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Figure 1: Active layer and permafrost characteristics in two contrasting soils under different vegetation (heath and wetland) in Zackenberg, northeast Greenland.
Figure 2: Observed steady-state microprofiles in a thawed permafrost core from the wetland site (depth of 63–65 cm) in Zackenberg, northeast Greenland.
Figure 3: Top permafrost characteristics (0–20 cm) from six Arctic grass-dominated wetlands.

Change history

  • 26 May 2010

    In the version of this Letter originally published, Fig. 2b was incorrect and should have been as shown here. This error has been corrected in the HTML and PDF versions of the Letter.


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This study was funded by the Norden Arctic Co-Operation Programme 2006–2008 (80142), the Norwegian Research Council (TSP Norway grant no 176033/S30), The Danish Natural Science Research Council, The University Centre in Svalbard, UNIS and the Zackenberg Research Station. Special thanks to the UNIS course AG-333 students for assisting with the permafrost coring, to L. Berg for laboratory assistance, to A. Michelsen, S. Struwe and K. Vestberg from the University of Copenhagen and L. H. Larsen from Unisense for help with analyses and advice.

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B.E. and H.H.C. designed and carried out the field work, permafrost modelling was done by B.U.H., and B.E. was responsible for all analysis and experiments, data interpretation and paper writing. All authors commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Bo Elberling.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Elberling, B., Christiansen, H. & Hansen, B. High nitrous oxide production from thawing permafrost. Nature Geosci 3, 332–335 (2010).

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