Until recently, awareness of the importance of winter carbon dioxide emissions from arctic soils was highly limited, resulting from incorrect assumptions that emissions from frozen soils beneath snow were insignificant compared to other sources. Consequently, carbon dioxide emissions during arctic winter months are frequently omitted from global carbon cycling budgets and our capacity to measure atmosphere-snow-soil processes controlling carbon dioxide emission and simulate them in climate models are under-developed. This limits our ability to make future climate projections, especially in arctic tundra and forested regions, which characterise about 27% of the Earth’s land surface and are warming more than twice as fast as the global average since the late twentieth century.
Carbon dioxide, a gas which causes the Earth’s atmosphere to trap heat causing the planet to warm, is emitted by microbes decomposing organic material in soil. Decomposition can occur when the soil is frozen, but rates of carbon dioxide emission decrease as soil temperatures decrease, down to -20 degrees Celsius when carbon dioxide emissions become negligible. Winter snow cover has an important impact on arctic soil temperatures, acting like a duvet covering a bed. A thick duvet with lots of air trapped between the feathers provides insulation. Air trapped between the snow crystals within a snowpack acts in a similar manner, limiting the loss of heat from soils warmed in the summer to the cold atmosphere during long arctic winters. As the ground is often snow covered for at least half of the year in Arctic regions, it is vital that we understand processes that control the impact of snow cover on soil temperatures and carbon dioxide emissions, and accurately represent these processes in climate models. Here we ask, how sensitive are measured carbon dioxide concentrations within arctic snowpacks to the variability of snowpack physical properties (e.g. size of the snow crystals)? Can more realistic simulations of snowpack density and thermal conductivity in climate models reduce the underprediction in carbon dioxide emissions from arctic snowpacks? And, how may future changes in winter soil temperatures and snow cover affect future carbon dioxide emissions? In order to answer these questions, we will create a new field measurement database of arctic meteorology, soil and snow properties, and carbon dioxide concentrations. We will use this database to develop more realistic representations of processes controlling winter carbon dioxide emissions in climate models, which will lead to confident model projections of future winter carbon dioxide emissions from the wider Arctic region. By combining field and laboratory measurements with climate modelling, this partnership between Canadian, Finnish and UK scientists will increase our predictive understanding of Arctic environmental change resulting from, and contributing to, our warming planet.