Detecting the permafrost carbon feedback: Talik formation and increased cold-season respiration as precursors to sink-to-source transitions

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Abstract

Thaw and release of permafrost carbon (C) due to climate change is likely to offset increased vegetation C uptake in northern high-latitude (NHL) terrestrial ecosystems. Models project that this permafrost C feedback may act as a slow leak, in which case detection and attribution of the feedback may be difficult. The formation of talik, a subsurface layer of perennially thawed soil, can accelerate permafrost degradation and soil respiration, ultimately shifting the C balance of permafrost-affected ecosystems from long-term C sinks to long-term C sources. It is imperative to understand and characterize mechanistic links between talik, permafrost thaw, and respiration of deep soil C to detect and quantify the permafrost C feedback. Here, we use the Community Land Model (CLM) version 4.5, a permafrost and biogeochemistry model, in comparison to long-term deep borehole data along North American and Siberian transects, to investigate thaw-driven C sources in NHL ( > 55° N) from 2000 to 2300. Widespread talik at depth is projected across most of the NHL permafrost region (14 millionĝ€†km2) by 2300, 6.2 millionĝ€†km2 of which is projected to become a long-term C source, emitting 10 Pgĝ€†C by 2100, 50 Pgĝ€†C by 2200, and 120 Pgĝ€†C by 2300, with few signs of slowing. Roughly half of the projected C source region is in predominantly warm sub-Arctic permafrost following talik onset. This region emits only 20 Pgĝ€†C by 2300, but the CLM4.5 estimate may be biased low by not accounting for deep C in yedoma. Accelerated decomposition of deep soil C following talik onset shifts the ecosystem C balance away from surface dominant processes (photosynthesis and litter respiration), but sink-to-source transition dates are delayed by 20-200 years by high ecosystem productivity, such that talik peaks early ( ĝ1/4 2050s, although borehole data suggest sooner) and C source transition peaks late ( ĝ1/4 2150-2200). The remaining C source region in cold northern Arctic permafrost, which shifts to a net source early (late 21st century), emits 5 times more C (95 Pgĝ€†C) by 2300, and prior to talik formation due to the high decomposition rates of shallow, young C in organic-rich soils coupled with low productivity. Our results provide important clues signaling imminent talik onset and C source transition, including (1) late cold-season (January-February) soil warming at depth ( ĝ1/4 2 m), (2) increasing cold-season emissions (November-April), and (3) enhanced respiration of deep, old C in warm permafrost and young, shallow C in organic-rich cold permafrost soils. Our results suggest a mosaic of processes that govern carbon source-to-sink transitions at high latitudes and emphasize the urgency of monitoring soil thermal profiles, organic C age and content, cold-season CO2 emissions, and atmospheric 14CO2 as key indicators of the permafrost C feedback.

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Parazoo, N. C., Koven, C. D., Lawrence, D. M., Romanovsky, V., & Miller, C. E. (2018). Detecting the permafrost carbon feedback: Talik formation and increased cold-season respiration as precursors to sink-to-source transitions. Cryosphere, 12(1), 123–144. https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-12-123-2018

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