BER launches Environmental System Science Program. Visit our new website under construction!

U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Large Uncertainty in Permafrost Carbon Stocks Due to Hillslope Soil Deposits
Published: June 26, 2017
Posted: November 21, 2017

Soil sampling and geophysical imaging efforts that target hill toe deposits can help constrain uncertainty.

The Science 
The gradual and ongoing transport of soil and soil organic carbon (SOC) down hillslopes results in deposits at the base of hills. Limited sampling of these deposits leaves the quantity of carbon buried on hills poorly quantified. This study's analysis suggests that accounting for carbon in these deposits could significantly alter present estimates of carbon stored in permafrost.

The Impact
Quantifying the amount of carbon frozen and stored in permafrost soils is a critical challenge in the attempt to estimate the possible feedback that thawing permafrost may have on the global carbon cycle. Given the widespread distribution and potential for deposits thicker that one meter, hillslope deposits of soil carbon could be a significant, but presently unaccounted-for, store of carbon in permafrost regions. Greater study should be focused on these depositions to better constrain estimates of permafrost SOC stores.

This study combined topographic models with soil profile data and topographic analysis to evaluate the quantity and uncertainty of SOC mass stored in perennially frozen hill toe soil deposits. The study shows that in Alaska this SOC mass introduces an uncertainty that is >200% the current state-wide estimates of SOC stocks 77 petagrams of carbon (Pg C) and that a similarly large uncertainty may also pertain at a circumpolar scale. The SOC content of permafrost hill toe deposits can meaningfully change current estimates of permafrost SOC. SOC stored in hill toe deposits is likely sensitive to climate change–induced erosion and deposition. Soil sampling and geophysical imaging efforts that target hill toe deposits can help constrain this large uncertainty.

BER Program Manager
Daniel Stover  
Terrestrial Ecosystem Science, SC-23.1 (301-903-0289)

Principal Investigator
Joel C. Rowland
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos, NM 87545 (505-665-2871)

This research is supported by the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE)–Arctic project of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. Contributions of U. Mishra were supported under Argonne National Laboratory Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.

Shelef, E., J. C. Rowland, C. J. Wilson, G. E. Hilley, U. Mishra, G. L. Altmann, and C.-L. Ping. “Large uncertainty in permafrost carbon stocks due to hillslope soil deposits.” Geophysical Research Letters 44(12), 6134–6144 (2017). [DOI:10.1002/2017GL073823].

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science
  • Research Area: Carbon Cycle, Nutrient Cycling
  • Research Area: Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE)

Division: SC-33.1 Earth and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


BER supports basic research and scientific user facilities to advance DOE missions in energy and environment. More about BER

Recent Highlights

Mar 23, 2021
Molecular Connections from Plants to Fungi to Ants
Lipids transfer energy and serve as an inter-kingdom communication tool in leaf-cutter ants&rsqu [more...]

Mar 19, 2021
Microbes Use Ancient Metabolism to Cycle Phosphorus
Microbial cycling of phosphorus through reduction-oxidation reactions is older and more widespre [more...]

Feb 22, 2021
Warming Soil Means Stronger Microbe Networks
Soil warming leads to more complex, larger, and more connected networks of microbes in those soi [more...]

Jan 27, 2021
Labeling the Thale Cress Metabolites
New data pipeline identifies metabolites following heavy isotope labeling.

Analysis [more...]

Aug 31, 2020
Novel Bacterial Clade Reveals Origin of Form I Rubisco

  • All plant biomass is sourced from the carbon-fixing enzyme Rub [more...]

List all highlights (possible long download time)