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Volume 12, issue 1 | Copyright
The Cryosphere, 12, 123-144, 2018
https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-12-123-2018
© Author(s) 2018. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Research article 12 Jan 2018

Research article | 12 Jan 2018

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

Nicholas C. Parazoo1, Charles D. Koven2, David M. Lawrence3, Vladimir Romanovsky4, and Charles E. Miller1 Nicholas C. Parazoo et al.
  • 1Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, 91109, USA
  • 2Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, California, USA
  • 3National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, USA
  • 4Geophysical Institute UAF, Fairbanks, Alaska, 99775, USA

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 (14million km2) by 2300, 6.2million km2 of which is projected to become a long-term C source, emitting 10Pg C by 2100, 50Pg C by 2200, and 120Pg 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 20Pg 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 ( ∼ 2050s, although borehole data suggest sooner) and C source transition peaks late ( ∼ 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 (95Pg 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 ( ∼ 2m), (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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Carbon models suggest the permafrost carbon feedback (soil carbon emissions from permafrost thaw) acts as a slow, unobservable leak. We investigate if permafrost temperature provides an observable signal to detect feedbacks. We find a slow carbon feedback in warm sub-Arctic permafrost soils, but potentially rapid feedback in cold Arctic permafrost. This is surprising since the cold permafrost region is dominated by tundra and underlain by deep, cold permafrost thought impervious to such changes.
Carbon models suggest the permafrost carbon feedback (soil carbon emissions from permafrost...
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