Constraining Arctic Carbon-Cycle Feedbacks

Arctic permafrost covers a vast area of the Earth, more than 60 times the size of the UK, where temperatures are so low that the ground is frozen year-round. This means that the soil has a memory: plants and animals that lived thousands of years ago and were buried in the soil have remained frozen there, without fully decomposing. This has continued over time, and huge stores of organic matter have built up in the ground.

Permafrost forms a solid layer, causing water-logging at the surface, which also stops the organic matter from decomposing. Global warming has started to thaw the permafrost, and this is set to continue. As the soil thaws, microbes start to decompose the previously-frozen and waterlogged organic matter, turning it into greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide and methane. In total, there is more carbon in Arctic soils than in the whole atmosphere, which gives the potential for massive release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost. This means any warming caused by humans may be amplified by extra greenhouse gases from the permafrost. Understanding the global warming impact from permafrost emissions is therefore crucial in determining whether we can meet international climate targets, such as those in the Paris agreement. Studies show that greenhouse gas emissions from permafrost could cause up to 0.8C additional global warming by the end of the century. However, this figure is highly uncertain and further research is required to understand the mechanisms involved. My project would address vital unanswered questions: How much of the organic matter in the soil will decompose, and how quickly? How much global warming will it cause? Will plants grow better in a warmer Arctic, and does this compensate for the greenhouse gases released from permafrost? I will study global patterns to determine how Arctic soils might look in warmer climates. Soils without permafrost tend to store less organic matter than Arctic soils. By analysing how the organic matter is related to factors like air temperature and rainfall on a global scale, I will develop a new way to estimate soil organic matter. Then, using predictions of future climate from the latest climate models, I will estimate how organic matter in the Arctic will change under global warming, and from this, approximately how much greenhouse gas would be released. I will then work with field measurements to develop a sophisticated model to simulate the future of the Arctic. JULES is part of the UK’s climate model; it’s a model of the land surface of the whole Earth. I would incorporate key processes that are currently not included in the JULES model, resulting in a new model version capable of simulating the most important Arctic processes. Based on the latest scientific understanding from new measurements in the Arctic, I would develop innovative schemes to represent: 1) Water distribution (including waterlogging) in permafrost soils, 2) Arctic plant species, 3) decomposition of organic matter in the soil. The future is always uncertain, which means that it is not possible to put an exact value on future greenhouse gas emissions from the Arctic, but rather to give a range of values. I will approach this using mathematical techniques that translate the information contained in observations into a range of uncertainty within the JULES model itself: Essentially answering the question, if data gives us a certain amount of information about the real world, what is the range of possible models that is consistent with this? I will then run simulations with the full range of models to estimate the full set of possible futures. This will simulate the major changes in the Arctic over the next century: thawing permafrost, shifting vegetation, and exchanges of carbon dioxide and methane from the land surface. Ultimately this will lead to a more robust understanding of the greenhouse gas balance in the Arctic, and the role of the Arctic in global climate change.

Grant reference
Natural Environment Research Council
Total awarded
£468,896 GBP
Start date
30 Sep 2018
4 years 11 months 29 days
End date
29 Sep 2023