Terrestrial Permafrost

Permafrost-affected soils of the northern hemisphere have accumulated large pools of organic carbon (OC) since continuous low temperatures in the permafrost prevented organic carbon decomposition. According to recent estimates these soils contain 1670 Pg of OC (Tarnocai et al., 2009; Hugelius et al., 2013), or about 2.5-times the carbon within the global vegetation. Rising arctic temperatures will result in increased permafrost thawing resulting in a mobilization of formerly frozen OC. The degradation of the newly available OC will result in an increased formation of trace gases such as methane and carbon dioxide which can be released to the atmosphere. Rising trace gas concentrations due to permafrost thawing would thereby form a positive feedback on climate warming.

The question we will answer is how large is the reservoir of OC stored in Northeast-Siberia and how fast is the decomposition of the thawed and therefore newly available organic matter.

The Lena River Delta, which is the largest delta in the Arctic, extends over an area of 32 000 km2 and likely holds more than half of the entire soil organic carbon (SOC) mass stored in the seven major deltas in the northern permafrost regions. The geomorphic units of the Lena River Delta which were formed by true deltaic sedimentation processes are a Holocene river terrace and the active floodplains. Their mean SOC stocks for the upper 1m of soils were estimated at 29 kgm−2 ± 10 kgm−2 and at 14 kgm−2 ± 7 kgm−2, respectively. For the depth of 1 m, the total SOC pool of the Holocene river terrace was estimated at 121 Tg ± 43 Tg, and the SOC pool of the active floodplains was estimated at 120 Tg ± 66 Tg. The mass of SOC stored within the observed seasonally thawed active layer was estimated at about 127 Tg assuming an average maximum active layer depth of 50 cm. The SOC mass which is stored in the perennially frozen ground at the increment 50–100 cm soil depth, which is currently excluded from intense biogeochemical  exchange with the atmosphere, was estimated at 113 Tg. The mean nitrogen (N) stocks for the upper 1m of soils were estimated at 1.2 kgm−2 ± 0.4 kgm−2 for the Holocene river terrace and at 0.9 kgm−2 ± 0.4 kgm−2 for the active floodplain levels, respectively. For the depth of 1 m, the total N pool of the river terrace was estimated at 4.8 Tg ± 1.5 Tg, and the total N pool of the floodplains was estimated at 7.7 Tg ± 3.6 Tg. Considering the projections for deepening of the seasonally thawed active layer up to 120 cm in the Lena River Delta region within the 21st century, these large carbon and nitrogen stocks could become increasingly available for decomposition and mineralization processes.

Potential release of OC from permafrost in Northeast-Sibieria. Data from: Knoblauch et al., 2013: Predicting long-term carbon mineralization and trace gas production from thawing permafrost of Northeast Siberia. Global Change Biology, 19, 1160-1172

The currently observed Arctic warming will increase permafrost degradation followed by mineralization of formerly frozen organic matter to carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Despite increasing awareness of permafrost carbon vulnerability, the potential long-term formation of trace gases from thawing permafrost remains unclear. The objective of the current study is to quantify the potential long-term release of trace gases from permafrost organic matter. Therefore, Holocene and Pleistocene permafrost deposits were sampled in the Lena River Delta, Northeast Siberia. The sampled permafrost contained between 0.6% and 12.4% organic carbon. CO2 and CH4 production was measured for 1200 days in aerobic and anaerobic incubations at 4 °C. The derived fluxes were used to estimate parameters of a two pool carbon degradation model. Total CO2 production was similar in Holocene permafrost (1.3 ± 0.8 mg CO2-C gdw-1 aerobically, 0.25 ± 0.13 mg CO2-C gdw-1 anaerobically) as in 34 000–42 000-year-old Pleistocene permafrost (1.6 ± 1.2 mg CO2-C gdw-1 aerobically, 0.26 ± 0.10 mg CO2-C gdw-1 anaerobically). The main predictor for carbon mineralization was the content of organic matter. Anaerobic conditions strongly reduced carbon mineralization since only 25% of aerobically mineralized carbon was released as CO2 and CH4 in the absence of oxygen. CH4 production was low or absent in most of the Pleistocene permafrost and always started after a significant delay. After 1200 days on average 3.1% of initial carbon was mineralized to CO2 under aerobic conditions while without oxygen 0.55% were released as CO2 and 0.28% as CH4. The calibrated carbon degradation model predicted cumulative CO2 production over a period of 100 years accounting for 15.1% (aerobic) and 1.8% (anaerobic) of initial organic carbon, which is significantly less than recent estimates. The multiyear time series from the incubation experiments helps to more reliably constrain projections of future trace gas fluxes from thawing permafrost landscapes.