Lakes and the Arctic Carbon Cycle

The Arctic is changing rapidly, and it is predicted that areas which are today tundra will become tree-covered as warming progresses, with, for example, forest spreading northwards to the coast of northern European Russia by 2100. In some parts of the Arctic, such as Alaska, this process, commonly referred to as "greening", has already been observed over the past few decades; woody shrubs are expanding their distribution northwards into tundra. Such vegetation changes influence nutrient cycling in soils, including carbon cycling, but the extent to which they will change the storage or release of carbon at a landscape scale is debated.

Nor do we fully understand the role that lakes play in this system although it is known that many lakes in the tundra and northern forests are today releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere in significant amounts, and a proportion of this carbon comes into the lake from the vegetation and soils of the surrounding landscape. Lakes form an important part of arctic landscapes: there are many thousands of them in our study areas in Russia and west Greenland, and they act as focal points for carbon cycling within the wider landscape. It is vital that we understand the interactions between plants, soils, nutrients, and lakes because there are massive carbon stores in the high northern latitudes, particularly in frozen soils, and if this carbon is transferred into the atmosphere (as carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane) it will create a positive feedback, driving further global warming. For this reason, the Arctic represents a critical component of the Earth System, and understanding how it will it respond to global environmental change is crucial. Lakes are a key link in this process. As lakes are tightly coupled with terrestrial carbon cycling, changes in the flows of carbon to a lake are faithfully recorded in lake sediment records, as are changes in the biological processing of that carbon within the lake. We also know that similar vegetation changes to those observed or predicted today occurred in the past when climate was warmer than today, and thus past events can provide an analogue for future changes. This project will examine lake sediment records, using techniques that extract a range of chemical signals and microscopic plant and animal remains, to see how vegetation changes associated with past natural climate warming, such as migration of the tree-line northwards, affected lake functioning in terms of the overall biological productivity, the species composition, and the types of carbon processing that were dominant. Depending upon the balance between different biological processes, which in turn are linked to surrounding vegetation and soils, lakes may have contributed mostly to carbon storage or mostly to carbon emissions at a landscape scale. Changes in vegetation type also influence decomposition of plant remains and soil development, and this is linked to nitrogen cycling and availability. Nitrogen is an important control over productivity and hence of carbon fixation and storage, and thus it is important to study the dynamics of nitrogen along with those of carbon. Due to the spatial variability of climate and geology, the pace of vegetation development (and of species immigration) and the types of plants involved have not been uniform around the Arctic. By examining several lakes in each of three regions (Alaska, Greenland, Russia) we will be able to describe a broad range of different vegetation transitions and the associated responses of the lakes. Our results can be used to inform our understanding of the likely pathways of recently initiated and future changes. They can also be up-scaled to the whole Arctic and so contribute to the broader scientific goal of understanding feedbacks to global warming.

Grant reference
Natural Environment Research Council
Total awarded
£51,080 GBP
Start date
31 Jan 2013
2 years 11 months 30 days
End date
30 Jan 2016