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Permafrost carbon emissions in a changing Arctic

Abstract

Arctic permafrost stores nearly 1,700 billion metric tons of frozen and thawing carbon. Anthropogenic warming threatens to release an unknown quantity of this carbon to the atmosphere, influencing the climate in processes collectively known as the permafrost carbon feedback. In this Review, we discuss advances in tracking permafrost carbon dynamics, including mechanisms of abrupt thaw, instrumental observations of carbon release and model predictions of the permafrost carbon feedback. Abrupt thaw and thermokarst could emit a substantial amount of carbon to the atmosphere rapidly (days to years), mobilizing the deep legacy carbon sequestered in Yedoma. Carbon dioxide emissions are proportionally larger than other greenhouse gas emissions in the Arctic, but expansion of anoxic conditions within thawed permafrost and soils stands to increase the proportion of future methane emissions. Increasingly frequent wildfires in the Arctic will also lead to a notable but unpredictable carbon flux. More detailed monitoring though in situ, airborne and satellite observations will provide a deeper understanding of the Arctic’s future role as a carbon source or sink, and the subsequent impact on the Earth system.

Key points

  • Tundra fire and abrupt thaw events are increasingly driving the release of permafrost carbon into the atmosphere.

  • Observational tools improve carbon flux estimates across scales, but scaling remains a major challenge.

  • Satellite systems scheduled to come online by 2025 will provide high-frequency data and enable better monitoring of permafrost carbon emissions.

  • Earth system models must include permafrost dynamics to enable accurate permafrost carbon feedback projections.

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Fig. 1: Permafrost location and temperature in the Arctic.
Fig. 2: Vulnerability of carbon stocks to permafrost thaw.
Fig. 3: Carbon flux dynamics in permafrost landscapes.
Fig. 4: Simulated cumulative changes in permafrost area and storage capacity.
Fig. 5: Projected change in Arctic net carbon balance to 2300.

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Acknowledgements

A portion of this work was carried out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (80NM0018D0004). This work is part of the NASA-ESA Arctic Methane and Permafrost Challenge (AMPAC). J.T. acknowledges funding from the Academy of Finland (projects 312125, 337552).

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Glossary

Active layer

In permafrost environments, the top layer of substrate that often freezes in winter and thaws in the spring and summer (less than 50 cm thick in the tundra and up to 3 m in boreal regions).

Talik

A layer of soil that is unfrozen year-round within the permafrost. Often found below lakes, wetlands or rivers.

Permafrost carbon feedback

(PCF). The accelerated release of carbon into the atmosphere from the thawing of the permafrost.

Abrupt thaw

Rapid permafrost thaw that occurs on timescales of a few days to a few years.

Thermokarst

An erosional landscape process of abrupt thaw, resulting in permafrost structural collapse.

Yedoma

Carbon-rich (at least 210 PgC globally), Pleistocene-era permafrost containing up to 90% ice.

RCP4.5

The median Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for climate modelling on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report in 2014.

RCP8.5

The highest carbon emission scenario Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for climate modelling on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report in 2014.

Ebullition

The action of bubbling or boiling.

Aerenchymous transference

Movement of gas through air spaces found in aquatic plants.

Rhizome priming

The stimulation of microbial organic matter remineralization due to plant root activity.

Zombie fires

Fires that burn year to year and extend through the winter into the early spring, before wildfire season.

Zero curtain

The transition of water to ice is slowed due to latent heat release in the surrounding soil, despite sub-zero air temperatures.

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Miner, K.R., Turetsky, M.R., Malina, E. et al. Permafrost carbon emissions in a changing Arctic. Nat Rev Earth Environ 3, 55–67 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00230-3

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