Large loss of CO2 in winter observed across the northern permafrost region

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Recent warming in the Arctic, which has been amplified during the winter1,2,3, greatly enhances microbial decomposition of soil organic matter and subsequent release of carbon dioxide (CO2)4. However, the amount of CO2 released in winter is not known and has not been well represented by ecosystem models or empirically based estimates5,6. Here we synthesize regional in situ observations of CO2 flux from Arctic and boreal soils to assess current and future winter carbon losses from the northern permafrost domain. We estimate a contemporary loss of 1,662 TgC per year from the permafrost region during the winter season (October–April). This loss is greater than the average growing season carbon uptake for this region estimated from process models (−1,032 TgC per year). Extending model predictions to warmer conditions up to 2100 indicates that winter CO2 emissions will increase 17% under a moderate mitigation scenario—Representative Concentration Pathway 4.5—and 41% under business-as-usual emissions scenario—Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5. Our results provide a baseline for winter CO2 emissions from northern terrestrial regions and indicate that enhanced soil CO2 loss due to winter warming may offset growing season carbon uptake under future climatic conditions.

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Fig. 1: Distribution of in situ data included in this winter CO2 flux synthesis.
Fig. 2: Effect of soil temperature on CO2 release from soils.
Fig. 3: Pan-Arctic winter CO2 emissions under current and future climate scenarios.
Fig. 4: Projected annual CO2 emissions during the winter for the northern permafrost region.

Data availability

Data are archived and freely available at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Distributed Active Archive Center. The synthesis dataset is available at Monthly carbon flux maps (25 km, October–April, 2003–2018; 2018–2100 for RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5) are available at

Change history

  • 08 November 2019

    An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.


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This study was supported by funding from NASA’s Arctic-Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE; grant no. NNX15AT81A to S.M.N.), with additional funding from NASA New Investigator Program (grant no. NNX17AF16G to J.D.W.), National Science Foundation (grant nos. 955713 and 1331083 to E.A.G.S.; no. 1503559 to E.E.J.), the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments Arctic Project, Department of Energy Office of Science to E.E.J., Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research to J.D.J and R.M. (grant no. DE-AC02-06CH11357), National Research Foundation of Korea (grant nos. NRF-2016M1A5A1901769 and KOPRI-PN-19081 to B.-Y.L. and Y.K.), and funds that supported the data included in this synthesis.

Author information




S.M.N., J.D.W. and B.M.R conceived the work. B.W.A., G.C., C.T.C., H.G., E.E.J., M.M.L., S.M.L., M.L., A.M., C.M., S.M.N., F.R., B.M.R., K.S., A.-K.S., C.C.T., Y.W. and X.X. extracted unpublished data. K.A.A, M.P.B, G.C, T.R.C, E.J.C, C.T.C., S.D., J.D., J.E.E., B.E., E.S.E., T.F., M.G., J.P.G., P.G., M.H., J.D.J., A.A.M.K., Y.K., L.K., K.S.L., M.L., R.M., J.M., A.M., S.M.N., W.C.O., F.-J.W.P., N.P., W.Q., D.R., T.S., N.M.S., E.A.G.S, P.R.S., O.S., P.F.S., M.P.W., C.W. and D.Z. provided unpublished or raw data. L.B., A.A.B., J.D., J.S.K., Z.L., N.M., A.D.M., B.P. and Z.Z. provided modelled data and results. S.M.L., C.M., S.M.N., S.P. and J.D.W. prepared tables and figures. G.C., H.G., M.J.L., M.M.L., S.M.L, S.M.N., S.P., B.M.R., P.F.S. and J.D.W. performed statistical analyses, including BRT modelling. S.P., B.M.R. and J.W. led the BRT upscaling or projection analyses. All authors contributed to data interpretation and preparation of manuscript text.

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Correspondence to Susan M. Natali.

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Supplementary methods, Figs. 1–6, Tables 1–8 and references.

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Natali, S.M., Watts, J.D., Rogers, B.M. et al. Large loss of CO2 in winter observed across the northern permafrost region. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 852–857 (2019).

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