Permafrost and Carbon

The Arctic permafrost landscape showing tundra with permafrost polygons and pingos.
The permafrost landscape of the Arctic includes ice-wedge polygons and pingos.
As the climate warms and permafrost thaws, carbon is released. How much carbon? Under what conditions? What are likely impacts? This area of research is important to understand the feedback loops of a changing climate. Following are some of the recent articles that explore the release of carbon from thawing permafrost.

Potential carbon emissions dominated by carbon dioxide from thawed permafrost soils


Increasing temperatures in northern high latitudes are causing permafrost to thaw, making large amounts of previously frozen organic matter vulnerable to microbial decomposition. Permafrost thaw also creates a fragmented landscape of drier and wetter soil conditions that determine the amount and form (carbon dioxide (CO2), or methane (CH4)) of carbon (C) released to the atmosphere. The rate and form of C release control the magnitude of the permafrost C feedback, so their relative contribution with a warming climate remains unclear. We quantified the effect of increasing temperature and changes from aerobic to anaerobic soil conditions using 25 soil incubation studies from the permafrost zone. Here we show, using two separate meta-analyses, that a 10 °C increase in incubation temperature increased C release by a factor of 2.0 (95% confidence interval (CI), 1.8 to 2.2). Under aerobic incubation conditions, soils released 3.4 (95% CI, 2.2 to 5.2) times more C than under anaerobic conditions. Even when accounting for the higher heat trapping capacity of CH4, soils released 2.3 (95% CI, 1.5 to 3.4) times more C under aerobic conditions. These results imply that permafrost ecosystems thawing under aerobic conditions and releasing CO2 will strengthen the permafrost C feedback more than waterlogged systems releasing CO2 and CH4 for a given amount of C.

Schadel, C. et al. including J. A. O’Donnell. 2016. Potential carbon emissions dominated by carbon dioxide from thawed permafrost soils. Nature Climate Change DOI: 10.1038/ NCLIMATE3054

Long‐term anoxia and release of ancient, labile carbon upon thaw of Pleistocene permafrost


The fate of permafrost carbon upon thaw will drive feedbacks to climate warming. Here we consider the character and context of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in yedoma permafrost cores from up to 20 m depth in central Alaska. We observed high DOC concentrations (4 to 129 mM) and consistent low molecular weight organic acid concentrations in three cores. We estimate a DOC production rate of 12 µmol DOC m−2 yr−1 based on model ages of up to ~200 kyr derived from uranium isotopes. Acetate C accounted for 24 ± 1% of DOC in all samples. This proportion suggests long‐term anaerobiosis and is likely to influence thaw outcomes due to biolability of acetate upon release in many environments. The combination of uranium isotopes, ammonium concentrations, and calcium concentrations explained 86% of the variation in thaw water DOC concentrations, suggesting that DOC production may be related to both reducing conditions and mineral dissolution over time.

Ewing, S. A., J. A. O’Donnell, G. R. Aiken, K. Butler, D. Butman, L. Windham-Myers, and M. Z. Kanevskiy 2015. Long-term anoxia and release of ancient, labile carbon upon thaw of Pleistocene permafrost. Geophysical Research Letters 42 doi:10.1002/2015GL066296.

Uranium isotopes and dissolved organic carbon in loess permafrost: Modeling the age of ancient ice


The residence time of ice in permafrost is an indicator of past climate history, and of the resilience and vulnerability of high-latitude ecosystems to global change. Development of geochemical indicators of ground-ice residence times in permafrost will advance understanding of the circumstances and evidence of permafrost formation, preservation, and thaw in response to climate warming and other disturbance. We used uranium isotopes to evaluate the residence time of segregated ground ice from ice-rich loess permafrost cores in central Alaska. Activity ratios of 234U vs. 238U (234U/238U) in water from thawed core sections ranged between 1.163 and 1.904 due to contact of ice and associated liquid water with mineral surfaces over time. Measured (234U/238U) values in ground ice showed an overall increase with depth in a series of five neighboring cores up to 21 m deep. This is consistent with increasing residence time of ice with depth as a result of accumulation of loess over time, as well as characteristic ice morphologies, high segregated ice content, and wedge ice, all of which support an interpretation of syngenetic permafrost formation associated with loess deposition. At the same time, stratigraphic evidence indicates some past sediment redistribution and possibly shallow thaw among cores, with local mixing of aged thaw waters. Using measures of surface area and a leaching experiment to determine U distribution, a geometric model of (234U/238U) evolution suggests mean ages of up to ∼200 ky BP in the deepest core, with estimated uncertainties of up to an order of magnitude. Evidence of secondary coatings on loess grains with elevated (234U/238U) values and U concentrations suggests that refinement of the geometric model to account for weathering processes is needed to reduce uncertainty. We suggest that in this area of deep ice-rich loess permafrost, ice bodies have been preserved from the last glacial period (10–100 ky BP), despite subsequent fluctuations in climate, fire disturbance and vegetation. Radiocarbon (14C) analysis of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in thaw waters supports ages greater than ∼40 ky BP below 10 m. DOC concentrations in thaw waters increased with depth to maxima of >1000 ppm, despite little change in ice content or cryostructures. These relations suggest time-dependent production of old DOC that will be released upon permafrost thaw at a rate that is mediated by sediment transport, among other factors.

Ewing, S. A., J. B. Paces, J. A. O’Donnell, M. T. Jorgenson, M. Z. Kanevskiy, G. R. Aiken, Y. Shur, J. W. Harden, and R. Striegl. 2015. Uranium isotopes and dissolved organic carbon in loess permafrost: modeling the age of ancient ice. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta doi:10.1016/j.gca.2014.11.008.

Importance of soil thermal regime in terrestrial ecosystem carbon dynamics in the circumpolar north


In the circumpolar north (45-90°N), permafrost plays an important role in vegetation and carbon (C) dynamics. Permafrost thawing has been accelerated by the warming climate and exerts a positive feedback to climate through increasing soil C release to the atmosphere. To evaluate the influence of permafrost on C dynamics, changes in soil temperature profiles should be considered in global C models. This study incorporates a sophisticated soil thermal model (STM) into a dynamic global vegetation model (LPJ-DGVM) to improve simulations of changes in soil temperature profiles from the ground surface to 3 m depth, and its impacts on C pools and fluxes during the 20th and 21st centuries.With cooler simulated soil temperatures during the summer, LPJ-STM estimates ~0.4 Pg C yr-1 lower present-day heterotrophic respiration but ~0.5 Pg C yr-1 higher net primary production than the original LPJ model resulting in an additional 0.8 to 1.0 Pg C yr-1 being sequestered in circumpolar ecosystems. Under a suite of projected warming scenarios, we show that the increasing active layer thickness results in the mobilization of permafrost C, which contributes to a more rapid increase in heterotrophic respiration in LPJ-STM compared to the stand-alone LPJ model. Except under the extreme warming conditions, increases in plant production due to warming and rising CO2, overwhelm the enhanced ecosystem respiration so that both boreal forest and arctic tundra ecosystems remain a net C sink over the 21st century. This study highlights the importance of considering changes in the soil thermal regime when quantifying the C budget in the circumpolar north.

Jiang, Y., Q. Zhuang, S. Sitch, J. A. O’Donnell, D. Kicklighter, A. Sokolov, and J. Melillo. 2016.Importance of soil thermal regime in terrestrial ecosystem carbon dynamics in the circumpolar north. Global and Planetary Change 142:28-40.

Last updated: April 10, 2018