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PI-Submitted Research Highlights for
Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program

Potential Carbon Emissions Dominated by Carbon Dioxide from Thawed Permafrost Soils

Colleen M. Iversen
Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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Carbon emissions from thawing permafrost

The Science                       
Rapid warming in the Arctic is leading to the thawing of carbon-rich soils that have been permanently frozen for millennia. The release of greenhouse gases from thawed permafrost could increase the rate of global warming, but this depends on the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere, and whether carbon is released as carbon dioxide or the more potent greenhouse gas methane.

The Impact
Across the Arctic, the total amount of carbon released from thawing soils, and whether the carbon was released as carbon dioxide or methane, was related to whether soils were drier and aerobic or waterlogged and anaerobic. Total carbon release, even when taking into account the stronger warming potential of methane, was greatest under aerobic soil conditions, indicating that drier soils may provide a larger, positive feedback to global warming than wetter soils.  

Summary
An international team led by Northern Arizona University scientists used two meta-analyses to investigate the greenhouse gas release from soils sampled from across the permafrost zone and warmed in laboratory incubations. The first analysis focused on the amount of carbon released in response to warming, while the second analysis focused on the difference in the relative amount of carbon released as carbon dioxide or methane under aerobic or anaerobic soil conditions. Potential warming of 10°C increased total carbon release by a factor of two, and even when taking into account the stronger warming potential of methane, total carbon release was greatest under aerobic soil conditions. The implications of these results are that drier soils may provide a larger, positive feedback to global warming than wetter soils. Phase 2 of the NGEE Arctic project is focused on addressing some of the key questions raised by this research. For example, where, when, and why will the Arctic become wetter or drier, and what are the implications for climate forcing? How should these processes be represented by mechanistic models of the Arctic?

PI Contact
Colleen M. Iversen
Senior Scientist
Climate Change Science Institute and
Environmental Sciences Division
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
One Bethel Valley Road, Bldg. 4500N
Oak Ridge TN 37831-6301
Phone: (865) 241-3961
iversencm@ornl.gov

Contacts (BER PM)
Daniel Stover and Jared DeForest
SC-23.1
Daniel.Stover@science.doe.gov (301-903-0289) and Jared.DeForest@science.doe.gov (301-903-1678)

Funding
Financial support was provided by the National Science Foundation Vulnerability of Permafrost Carbon Research Coordination Network Grant no. 955713 with continued support from the National Science Foundation Research Synthesis, and Knowledge Transfer in a Changing Arctic: Science Support for the Study of Environmental Arctic Change Grant no. 1331083. Author contributions were also supported by grants to individuals: Department of Energy, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Terrestrial Ecosystem Science (TES) Program (DE-SC0006982) to E.A.G.S.; UK Natural Environment Research Council funding to I.P.H. and C.E.-A. (NE/K000179/1); German Research Foundation (DFG, Excellence cluster CliSAP) to C.K.; Department of Ecosystem Biology, Grant agency of South Bohemian University, GAJU project no. 146/2013/P and GAJU project no. 146/2013/D to H.S.; National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs (1312402) to S.M.N.; National Science Foundation Division of Environmental Biology (0423385) and National Science Foundation Division of Environmental Biology (1026843), both to the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts; additionally, the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments in the Arctic (NGEE Arctic) project is supported by the Biological and Environmental Research programme in the US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by UT-Battelle, LLC, for the DOE under Contract no. DE-AC05-00OR22725. Support for C.B. came from European Union (FP-7-ENV-2011, project PAGE21, contract no. 282700), Academy of Finland (project CryoN, decision no. 132 045), Academy of Finland (project COUP, decision no. 291691; part of the European Union Joint Programming Initiative, JPI Climate), strategic funding of the University of Eastern Finland (project FiWER) and Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation and for P.J.M. from Nordic Center of Excellence (project DeFROST).

Publications
Schädel C, Bader MKF, Schuur EAG, Biasi C, Bracho R, Capek P, De Baets S, Diakova K, Ernakovich J, Estop-Aragones C, Graham DE, Hartley IP, Iversen CM, Kane E, Knoblauch C, Lupascu M, Martikainen PJ, Natali SM, Norby RJ, O'Donnell JA, Chowdhury TR, Santruckova H, Shaver G, Sloan VL, Treat CC, Turetsky MR, Waldrop MP, Wickland KP. 2016. Potential carbon emissions dominated by carbon dioxide from thawed permafrost soils. Nature Clim. Change, DOI:10.1038/nclimate3054.

Related Links
NGEE Artic
Northern Arizona University news release
ORNL news release
University of Exeter news release
Michigan Tech news release

Additional information

Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments in the Arctic (NGEE Arctic) project is supported by the Biological and Environmental Research programm in the US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is managed by UT-Battelle, LLC, for the DOE under Contract no. DE-AC05-00OR22725.


The coastal wetlands and polygonal landscapes on the North Slope of Alaska encompass a range of dry, aerobic tundra and wet, anaerobic tundra.

Source: Stan Wullschleger (ORNL). These images are provided under a Creative Commons license (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/deed.en). If you use an image, please attribute it to U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge National Laboratory. If you have any questions regarding use of this material, please send them to wullschlegsd@ornl.gov.

midsized version

High-centered polygons on the Barrow Environmental Observatory in Barrow, Alaska include dry, aerobic tundra surrounded by wet, anaerobic soils.

Details: Image taken August 29, 2014 (10:39 AM AKDT)  at the Barrow Environmental Observatory, Barrow, Alaska, USA. Not previously published.

Source: David Graham (ORNL). These images are provided under a Creative Commons license (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/deed.en). If you use an image, please attribute it to U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge National Laboratory. If you have any questions regarding use of this material, please send them to grahamde@ornl.gov.

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