High-latitude environments store nearly half of the planet’s below-ground organic carbon (OC), mostly in perennially frozen permafrost soils. Climatic changes drive increased export of terrestrial OC into many aquatic networks, yet the role that circumpolar lakes play in mineralizing this carbon is unclear. Here we directly evaluate ecosystem-scale OC cycling for lakes of interior Alaska. This arid, low-relief lake landscape is representative of over a quarter of total northern circumpolar lake area, but is greatly under-represented in current studies. Contrary to projections based on work in other regions, the studied lakes had a negligible role in mineralizing terrestrial carbon; they received little OC from ancient permafrost soils, and had small net contribution to the watershed carbon balance. Instead, most lakes recycled large quantities of internally derived carbon fixed from atmospheric CO2, underscoring their importance as critical sites for material and energy provision to regional food webs. Our findings deviate from the prevailing paradigm that northern lakes are hotspots of terrestrial OC processing. The shallow and hydrologically disconnected nature of lakes in many arid circumpolar landscapes isolates them from terrestrial carbon processing under current climatic conditions.

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Code associated with oxygen isotopic mass balance calculations for lake metabolism is available at https://github.com/MattBogard/LakeO18Metabolism.

Data availability

Data supporting the findings of this study are accessible within freely available and referenced databases, and within Supporting Information File 1 (CO2 meta-analysis). All original data generated in this study are available from the corresponding author and will be made freely available on ScienceBase (https://www.sciencebase.gov/catalog/item/5bb786b0e4b0fc368e906b09) shortly after publication.

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We thank D. Rey, B. Bloss, M. Wint, M. Haught, S. Wilson and B. Uhle for field and laboratory assistance. We also thank P. Raymond and P. Quay for the use of laboratory facilities during sample preparation for isotope analyses. We thank M. Walvoord, K. Finlay, R. Vogt, E. Hotchkiss and P. Leavitt for insightful discussions and input. Finally, we thank the many people who have graciously shared their data to make our lake CO2 meta-analysis possible. This project was supported by funding provided to M.J.B. from the Fonds de recherche du Québec—Nature et technologies (FRQNT) and the US Permafrost Association (USPA); to R.G.S., K.P.W., D.E.B. and R.G.M.S. from National Aeronautics and Space Agency, NASA-ABoVE Project 14-14TE-0012 (awards NNH16AC03I and NNX15AU14A); to D.E.B. from the University of Washington and the US Geological Survey Land Resources Mission Area and to R.G.S. and K.P.W. from the US Geological Survey Land Resources and Water Mission Areas.

Author information


  1. School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

    • Matthew J. Bogard
    • , Catherine D. Kuhn
    •  & David E. Butman
  2. Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA

    • Sarah Ellen Johnston
    •  & Robert G. M. Spencer
  3. United States Geological Survey, Boulder, CO, USA

    • Robert G. Striegl
    • , Mark M. Dornblaser
    •  & Kimberly P. Wickland
  4. School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

    • Gordon W. Holtgrieve
  5. School of Engineering and Environmental Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

    • David E. Butman


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M.J.B. and D.E.B. designed the study and M.J.B. wrote the initial manuscript. C.D.K. and D.E.B. conducted all geospatial mapping and remote sensing analyses. M.J.B. conducted lake \(p_{\rm{CO}_2}\) meta-analysis. G.W.H. and M.J.B. analysed samples for DO and DIC isotopic ratios. S.E.J. analysed samples for lignin-phenol yield. K.P.W. and M.M.D. conducted the DOC biolability experiment. D.E.B., M.J.B., M.M.D., R.G.S. and S.E.J. conducted all other field and laboratory analyses. D.E.B., G.W.H., K.P.W., R.G.S. and R.G.M.S. provided materials. All authors contributed to manuscript preparation and revisions.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Matthew J. Bogard.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary description, Figures 1–9 and Tables 1–3.

  2. Supplementary Dataset

    Meta-analysis of pan-arctic lake partial pressure of CO2.

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