A simplified, data-constrained approach to estimate the permafrost carbon–climate feedback

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
By: , and 

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Abstract

We present an approach to estimate the feedback from large-scale thawing of permafrost soils using a simplified, data-constrained model that combines three elements: soil carbon (C) maps and profiles to identify the distribution and type of C in permafrost soils; incubation experiments to quantify the rates of C lost after thaw; and models of soil thermal dynamics in response to climate warming. We call the approach the Permafrost Carbon Network Incubation–Panarctic Thermal scaling approach (PInc-PanTher). The approach assumes that C stocks do not decompose at all when frozen, but once thawed follow set decomposition trajectories as a function of soil temperature. The trajectories are determined according to a three-pool decomposition model fitted to incubation data using parameters specific to soil horizon types. We calculate litterfall C inputs required to maintain steady-state C balance for the current climate, and hold those inputs constant. Soil temperatures are taken from the soil thermal modules of ecosystem model simulations forced by a common set of future climate change anomalies under two warming scenarios over the period 2010 to 2100. Under a medium warming scenario (RCP4.5), the approach projects permafrost soil C losses of 12.2–33.4 Pg C; under a high warming scenario (RCP8.5), the approach projects C losses of 27.9–112.6 Pg C. Projected C losses are roughly linearly proportional to global temperature changes across the two scenarios. These results indicate a global sensitivity of frozen soil C to climate change (γ sensitivity) of −14 to −19 Pg C °C−1 on a 100 year time scale. For CH4 emissions, our approach assumes a fixed saturated area and that increases in CH4 emissions are related to increased heterotrophic respiration in anoxic soil, yielding CH4 emission increases of 7% and 35% for the RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 scenarios, respectively, which add an additional greenhouse gas forcing of approximately 10–18%. The simplified approach presented here neglects many important processes that may amplify or mitigate C release from permafrost soils, but serves as a data-constrained estimate on the forced, large-scale permafrost C response to warming.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title A simplified, data-constrained approach to estimate the permafrost carbon–climate feedback
Series title Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
DOI 10.1098/rsta.2014.0423
Volume 373
Issue 2054
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher The Royal Society
Publisher location London
Contributing office(s) Coop Res Unit Seattle
Description 23 p.
Larger Work Type Article
Larger Work Subtype Journal Article
Larger Work Title Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London A
Other Geospatial Arctic Circle
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N