Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

High nitrous oxide production from thawing permafrost

Subjects

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 01 July 2010

This article has been updated

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

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.

References

  1. Schuur, E. A. G. et al. The effect of permafrost thaw on old carbon release and net carbon exchange from tundra. Nature 459, 556–559 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Zimov, S. A., Schuur, E. A. G. & Chapin, F. S. III, Permafrost and the global carbon budget. Science 312, 1612–1613 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Dutta, K., Schuur, E. A. G., Neff, J. C. & Zimov, S. A. Potential carbon release from permafrost soils of Northeastern Siberia. Glob. Change Biol. 12, 2336–2351 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Rodionow, A., Flessa, H., Kazansky, O. & Guggenberger, G. Organic matter composition and potential trace gas production of permafrost soils in the forest tundra in northern Siberia. Geoderma 135, 49–62 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Uhlı´řová, E., Šantrůčková, H. & Davidov, S. P. Quality and potential biodegradability of soil organic matter preserved in permafrost of Siberian tussock tundra. Soil Biol. Biochem. 39, 1978–1989 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Shur, Y. L., Hinkel, K. M. & Nelson, F. E. The transient layer: Implications for geocryology and climate-change science. Permafr. Periglac. Process. 16, 5–17 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Shur, Y. L. & Jorgenson, M. T. Patterns of permafrost formation and degradation in relation to climate and ecosystems. Permafr. Periglac. Process. 18, 7–19 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Schuur, E. A. G. et al. Vulnerability of permafrost carbon to climate change: Implications for the global carbon cycle. Bioscience 58, 701–714 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. French, H. M. The Periglacial Environment 3rd edn (John Wiley, 2007).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  10. Werner, C., Butterbach-Bahl, K., Haas, E., Hickler, T. & Kiese, R. A global inventory of N2O emissions from tropical rainforest soils using a detailed biogeochemical model. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 21, GB3010 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Baggs, E. M. A review of stable isotopes techniques for N2O source partitioning in soils: Recent progress, remaining challenges and future considerations. Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom. 22, 1664–1672 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Jetten, M. S. M. The microbial nitrogen cycle. Environ. Microbiol. 10, 2903–2909 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Firestone, M. K. & Davidson, E. A. in Exchange of Trace Gases Between Terrestrial Ecosystems and the Atmosphere (eds Andreae, M. O. & Schimel, D. S.) (John Wiley, 1989).

    Google Scholar 

  14. Struwe, Yu. K., Kjøller, S. & Chen, A. Nitrous oxide production and consumption potential in an agricultural and a forest soil. Commun. Soil Sci. Plant Anal. 39, 2205–2220 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Martikainen, P. J., Nykänen, H., Crill, P. & Silvola, J. Effect of a lowered water table on nitrous oxide fluxes from northern peatlands. Nature 366, 51–53 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Bollmann, A. & Conrad, R. Influence of O2 availability on NO and N2O release by nitrification and denitrification in soils. Glob. Change Biol. 4, 387–396 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Gillam, K. M., Zebarth, B. J. & Burton, D. L. Nitrous oxide emissions from denitrification and the partitioning of gaseous losses as affected by nitrate and carbon addition and soil aeration. Can. J. Soil Sci. 88, 133–143 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Priemé, A. & Christensen, S. Natural perturbations, drying–wetting and freezing—thawing cycles, and the emission of nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane from farmed organic soils. Soil Biol. Biochem. 33, 2083–2091 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Elberling, B. et al. Soil and plant community-characteristics and dynamics at Zackenberg. Adv. Ecol. Res. 40, 223–248 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Christiansen, H. H. Meteorological control on interannual spatial and temporal variations in snow cover and ground thawing in two Northeast Greenlandic circumpolar-active-layer-monitoring (CALM) sites. Permafr. Periglac. Process. 15, 155–169 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Stendel, M., Christensen, J. H. & Petersen, D. Arctic climate and climate change with a focus on Greenland. Adv. Ecol. Res. 40, 13–43 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Hansen, B. U. et al. Present-day climate at Zackenberg. Adv. Ecol. Res. 40, 111–149 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Zhang, Y., Chen, W. & Riseborough, D. W. Transient projections of permafrost distribution in Canada during the 21st century under scenarios of climate change. Glob. Planet. Change 60, 443–456 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Repo, M. E. et al. Large N2O emissions from cryoturbated peat soil in tundra. Nature Geosci. 2, 189–192 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Hasholt, B. et al. Hydrology and transport of sediment and solutes at Zackenberg. Adv. Ecol. Res. 40, 197–221 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Andersen, K., Kjær, T. & Revsbech, N. P. An oxygen insensitive microsensor for nitrous oxide. Sens. Actuat. B 81, 42–48 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Revsbech, N. P. An oxygen microelectrode with a guard cathode. Linmol. Oceanogr. 34, 474–478 (1989).

    Google Scholar 

  28. Revsbech, N. P. & Jørgensen, B. B. in Advances in Microbial Ecology Vol. 9 (ed. Marshall, K. C.) (Plenum Press, 1986).

    Google Scholar 

  29. Revsbech, N. P., Nielsen, L. P. & Ramsing, N. B. A novel microsensor for determination of apparent diffusivity in sediments. Linmol. Oceanogr. 43, 986–992 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Berg, P., Risgaard-Petersen, N. & Rysgaard, S. Interpretation of measured concentration profiles in sediment pore water. Linmol. Oceanogr. 43, 1500–1510 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Bo Elberling.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 1752 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Elberling, B., Christiansen, H. & Hansen, B. High nitrous oxide production from thawing permafrost. Nature Geosci 3, 332–335 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo803

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo803

Further reading

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing