Rapid carbon loss and slow recovery following permafrost thaw in boreal peatlands

Global Change Biology
By: , and 

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Abstract

Permafrost peatlands store one-third of the total carbon (C) in the atmosphere and are increasingly vulnerable to thaw as high-latitude temperatures warm. Large uncertainties remain about C dynamics following permafrost thaw in boreal peatlands. We used a chronosequence approach to measure C stocks in forested permafrost plateaus (forest) and thawed permafrost bogs, ranging in thaw age from young (<10 years) to old (>100 years) from two interior Alaska chronosequences. Permafrost originally aggraded simultaneously with peat accumulation (syngenetic permafrost) at both sites. We found that upon thaw, C loss of the forest peat C is equivalent to ~30% of the initial forest C stock and is directly proportional to the prethaw C stocks. Our model results indicate that permafrost thaw turned these peatlands into net C sources to the atmosphere for a decade following thaw, after which post-thaw bog peat accumulation returned sites to net C sinks. It can take multiple centuries to millennia for a site to recover its prethaw C stocks; the amount of time needed for them to regain their prethaw C stocks is governed by the amount of C that accumulated prior to thaw. Consequently, these findings show that older peatlands will take longer to recover prethaw C stocks, whereas younger peatlands will exceed prethaw stocks in a matter of centuries. We conclude that the loss of sporadic and discontinuous permafrost by 2100 could result in a loss of up to 24 Pg of deep C from permafrost peatlands.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Rapid carbon loss and slow recovery following permafrost thaw in boreal peatlands
Series title Global Change Biology
DOI 10.1111/gcb.13403
Volume 23
Issue 3
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Eastern Geology and Paleoclimate Science Center
Description 19 p.
First page 1109
Last page 1127