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Nitrous oxide emissions from permafrost-affected soils


Soils are sources of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O) globally, but emissions from permafrost-affected soils have been considered negligible owing to nitrogen (N) limitation. Recent measurements of N2O emissions have challenged this view, showing that vegetated soils in permafrost regions are often small but evident sources of N2O during the growing season (~30 μg N2O–N m−2 day−1). Moreover, barren or sparsely vegetated soils, common in harsh climates, can serve as substantial sources of N2O (~455 μg N2O–N m−2 day−1), demonstrating the importance of permafrost-affected soils in Earth’s N2O budget. In this Review, we discuss N2O fluxes from subarctic, Arctic, Antarctic and alpine permafrost regions, including areas that likely serve as sources (such as peatlands) and as sinks (wetlands, dry upland soils), and estimate global permafrost-affected soil N2O emissions from previously published fluxes. We outline the below-ground N cycle in permafrost regions and examine the environmental conditions influencing N2O dynamics. Climate-change-related impacts on permafrost ecosystems and how these impacts could alter N2O fluxes are reviewed, and an outlook on the major questions and research needs to better constrain the global impact of permafrost N2O emissions is provided.

Key points

  • Published studies suggest that permafrost-affected soils are a source of nitrous oxide (N2O).

  • Compared with measurements of carbon dioxide and methane fluxes, measurements of N2O fluxes in permafrost regions are sparse and lacking during the non-growing season, making the magnitude of N2O fluxes across the vast permafrost regions uncertain.

  • Permafrost-affected soils store large amounts of nitrogen, but only a fraction is in bioavailable form. Strong plant–microorganism competition causes a general nitrogen limitation in permafrost-affected soils, often preventing N2O production and release.

  • Plant-regulatory effects on the size of the soil N pool are important, and N2O-emission hotspots occur in barren ground features, especially permafrost peatlands.

  • Climate warming and associated permafrost thaw, and other disturbances, could turn permafrost regions into a globally relevant source of N2O, creating a non-carbon permafrost feedback to the global climate system.

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Fig. 1: Map of locations with published N2O flux measurements in permafrost regions.
Fig. 2: Permafrost-affected soil biogeochemistry.
Fig. 3: N2O dynamics across the permafrost landscape.
Fig. 4: N2O fluxes under various environmental conditions.
Fig. 5: Idealized N2O fluxes during perturbations.


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We wish to acknowledge funding from the Academy of Finland/Russian Foundation for Basic Research project NOCA (decision no. 314630) and the Yedoma-N project (General Research Grant from the Academy of Finland, decision number 287469). C.V. was funded by the Canada Research Chair in Atmospheric Biogeosciences at High Latitudes (awarded to O.S.) and the Global Water Futures project Northern Water Futures. B.E. was supported by the Danish National Research Foundation (Center for Permafrost, CENPERM DNRF100), S.D.S. was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Grant, the Polar Continental Shelf Program (PCSP) and the International Polar Year (IPY) project CiCAT. Y.Y. was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31825006, 31988102 and 91837312) and the Second Tibetan Plateau Scientific Expedition and Research (STEP) program (2019QZKK0106 and 2019QZKK0302). We are grateful to Evan J. Wilcox for help in preparing Fig. 1 and to the authors of published N2O flux studies for providing additional site-level information that helped to interpret the flux data.

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P.J.M. initiated the study. P.J.M., C.V., M.E.M. and C.B. conducted the literature review. C.V. and P.J.M. wrote an outline of the manuscript, with contributions from M.E.M., C.B., B.W.A., B.E., O.S. and Y.Y. C.V. wrote the first version of the manuscript, after which all co-authors provided input on the manuscript text, figures and discussion of scientific content.

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Correspondence to Carolina Voigt.

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Nature Reviews Earth & Environment thanks Klaus Butterbach-Bahl, Jens Strauss and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Ground that remains continuously frozen for at least two consecutive years.


Intact plant–soil systems in laboratories meant to mimic near-field conditions.

Nitrite reductase

Enzyme catalysing the reduction of nitrite (NO2) to nitric oxide (NO).


Increase in ‘greenness’ caused by warming-induced increase in shrub cover and height.


Decrease in greenness caused by warming and extreme events, wildfires, thermokarst erosion and insect outbreaks.

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Voigt, C., Marushchak, M.E., Abbott, B.W. et al. Nitrous oxide emissions from permafrost-affected soils. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 420–434 (2020).

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