Permafrost catchments in transition: hydrological controls on carbon cycling and greenhouse gas budgets

The Arctic is undergoing rapid climatic change, with dramatic consequences for the ‘Frozen World’ (the ‘cryosphere’), including reductions in the depth, extent and duration of sea ice, and seasonal snow cover on land, retreat of ice sheets/glaciers, and melting of permafrost ("ground that remains at or below 0 degrees C for at least two consecutive years"). This is important not only for local and regional ecosystems and human communities, but also for the functioning of the entire earth system. Evidence is growing that organic matter frozen in permafrost soils (often for many millennia) is now thawing, making it available for decomposition by soil organisms, with the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), both greenhouse gases (GHGs), as by-products.

A major concern now is that, because permafrost soils contain 1672 petagrams (1 Pg = 1 billion tonnes) of organic carbon (C), which is about 50% of the total global below-ground pool of organic C, and permafrost underlies ~ 25% (23 million km2) of the N hemisphere land surface, a melting-induced release of GHGs to the atmosphere from permafrost soils could result in a major acceleration of global warming. This is called a ‘positive biogeochemical feedback’ on global change; in other words, an unintentional side-effect in the global C cycle and climate system. Unfortunately, the interacting biological, chemical and physical controls on CO2 and CH4 emissions from permafrost (and melting permafrost) environments to the atmosphere are the subject of much speculation because the scientific community does not know enough about the interactions between C and water cycling in permafrost systems. Warmer and drier soils may release more CO2, while warmer/wetter soils might release more CH4. Permafrost thawing also causes changes in the way water flows though the landscape (because frozen ground if often impermeable to water), and some areas may become drier, while others wetter. How the relative proportions of CO2 and CH4 emissions change, and their absolute amount, is critical for the overall ‘global warming potential’ (GWP) because these two gases have different potency as GHGs. Release of C from soils into freshwaters also needs to be taken into account because down-stream ‘de-gassing’ and decomposition of organic materials also influences releases of CO2 and CH4 from freshwater, or delivery of C to lakes/oceans. All-in-all, predicting the GWP of permafrost regions is scientifically challenging, and the interactions between the water (hydrological) and C cycles are poorly known. In this project we recognise the key role that hydrological processes play in landscape-scale C fluxes in arctic and boreal regions. In permafrost catchments in NW Canada (including areas where permafrost is known to be thawing) we will measure the capture of C from the atmosphere (through photosynthesis), its distribution in plants and soils, and the biological, physical and chemical controls of C transport and delivery from soils to freshwaters, and ultimately to the atmosphere as CO2 and CH4. In essence we wish to ‘close the C cycle’. Field-based measurements of key processes in the water and C cycles, including geochemical tracer and state-of-the-art C, hydrogen and oxygen isotope approaches, will be linked by computer modelling. The project team, together with partners in Canada, the US and UK, is in a unique position to link the water and C cycles in permafrost environments, and we will deliver essential scientific knowledge on the potential consequences of climate warming, and permafrost thawing, for GHG emissions from northern high latitudes. Both for local peoples directly dependent on arctic tundra/boreal forest ecosystems for their livelihoods and cultural identity, and for the global community who must respond to, and anticipate, potential consequences of climate and environmental change, this project will represent a significant step forward in understanding/predictive capacity.

Grant reference
Natural Environment Research Council
Total awarded
£273,875 GBP
Start date
30 Jun 2012
3 years 9 months
End date
30 Mar 2016