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Permafrost carbon cycle

Permafrost carbon cycle

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The Permafrost Carbon Cycle is a sub-cycle of the larger global carbon cycle
Carbon cycle
The carbon cycle is the biogeochemical cycle by which carbon is exchanged among the biosphere, pedosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere of the Earth...

. Permafrost
In geology, permafrost, cryotic soil or permafrost soil is soil at or below the freezing point of water for two or more years. Ice is not always present, as may be in the case of nonporous bedrock, but it frequently occurs and it may be in amounts exceeding the potential hydraulic saturation of...

 is defined as subsurface material that remains below 0o C (32o F) for at least two consecutive years. Because permafrost soils remain frozen for long periods of time, they store large amounts of carbon and other nutrients within their frozen framework during that time. Permafrost represents a large carbon reservoir that is seldom considered when determining global terrestrial carbon reservoirs. Recent and ongoing scientific research however, is changing this view.

The permafrost carbon cycle (Arctic Carbon Cycle) deals with the transfer of carbon from permafrost soils to terrestrial vegetation and microbes, to the atmosphere, back to vegetation, and finally back to permafrost soils through burial and sedimentation due to cryogenic processes. Some of this carbon is transferred to the ocean and other portions of the globe through the global carbon cycle. The cycle includes the exchange of carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide
Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring chemical compound composed of two oxygen atoms covalently bonded to a single carbon atom...

 and methane
Methane is a chemical compound with the chemical formula . It is the simplest alkane, the principal component of natural gas, and probably the most abundant organic compound on earth. The relative abundance of methane makes it an attractive fuel...

 between terrestrial components and the atmosphere, as well as the transfer of carbon between land and water as methane, dissolved organic carbon, dissolved inorganic carbon, particulate inorganic carbon and particulate organic carbon.


Soils, in general, are the largest reservoirs of carbon in terrestrial ecosystem
An ecosystem is a biological environment consisting of all the organisms living in a particular area, as well as all the nonliving , physical components of the environment with which the organisms interact, such as air, soil, water and sunlight....

s. This is also true for soils in the Arctic that are underlain by permafrost. Determining carbon stocks in cryosols
Gelisols are an order in USDA soil taxonomy. They are soils of very cold climates which are defined as containing permafrost within two meters of the soil surface...

, that is, soils containing permafrost within two meters of the soil surface, was completed using the Northern and Mid Latitudes Soil Database. Permafrost affected soils cover nearly 9% of the earth’s land area, yet store between 25 and 50% of the soil organic carbon. These estimates show that permafrost soils are an important carbon pool. These soils not only contain large amounts of carbon, but also sequester carbon through cryoturbation
In gelisols , cryoturbation refers to the mixing of materials from various horizons of the soil right down to the bedrock due to freezing and thawing.Cryoturbation occurs to varying degrees in most gelisols...

 and cryogenic processes.


Carbon is not produced by permafrost. Organic carbon derived from terrestrial vegetation must be incorporated into the soil column and subsequently be incorporated into permafrost to be effectively stored. Because permafrost responds to climate changes slowly, carbon storage removes carbon from the atmosphere for long periods of time. Radiocarbon dating techniques reveal that carbon within permafrost is often thousands of years old. Carbon storage in permafrost is the result of two primary processes.
  • The first process that captures carbon and stores it is syngenetic permafrost growth. This process is the result of a constant active layer thickness and energy exchange between permafrost, active layer, biosphere, and atmosphere, resulting in the vertical increase of the soil surface elevation. This aggradation of soil is the result of aeolian or fluvial
    Fluvial is used in geography and Earth science to refer to the processes associated with rivers and streams and the deposits and landforms created by them...

     sedimentation and/or peat
    Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation matter or histosol. Peat forms in wetland bogs, moors, muskegs, pocosins, mires, and peat swamp forests. Peat is harvested as an important source of fuel in certain parts of the world...

     formation. Peat accumulation rates are as high as 0.5mm/yr while sedimentation may cause a rise of 0.7mm/yr. Thick silt deposits resulting from abundant loess deposition during the last glacial maximum
    Last Glacial Maximum
    The Last Glacial Maximum refers to a period in the Earth's climate history when ice sheets were at their maximum extension, between 26,500 and 19,000–20,000 years ago, marking the peak of the last glacial period. During this time, vast ice sheets covered much of North America, northern Europe and...

     form thick carbon-rich soils known as yedoma
    Yedoma is an organic-rich Pleistocene-age loess permafrost with ice content of 50–90% by volume. The amount of carbon trapped in this type of permafrost is much more prevalent than originally thought and may be about 500 Gt, that is almost 100 times the amount of carbon released into the air each...

    . As this process occurs, the organic and mineral soil that is deposited is incorporated into the permafrost as the permafrost surface rises.

  • The second process responsible for storing carbon is cryoturbation
    In gelisols , cryoturbation refers to the mixing of materials from various horizons of the soil right down to the bedrock due to freezing and thawing.Cryoturbation occurs to varying degrees in most gelisols...

    , the mixing of soil due to freeze-thaw cycles. Cryoturbation moves carbon from the surface to depths within the soil profile. Frost heaving
    Frost heaving
    Frost heaving results from ice forming beneath the surface of soil during freezing conditions in the atmosphere. The ice grows in the direction of heat loss , starting at the freezing front or boundary in the soil...

     is the most common form of cryoturbation. Eventually, carbon that originates at the surface moves deep enough into the active layer to be incorporated into permafrost. When cryoturbation and the deposition of sediments act together, carbon storage rates increase.

Current estimates

The amount of carbon stored in permafrost soils is poorly understood. Current research activities seek to better understand the carbon content of soils throughout the soil column. Recent studies (2009) estimate that northern circumpolar permafrost soil carbon content equals approximately 1672 Pg. (1 Pg = 1 Gt = 1015g) This estimation of the amount of carbon stored in permafrost soils is more than double the amount currently in the atmosphere. This most recent assessment of carbon content in permafrost soils breaks the soil column into three horizons, 0–30 cm, 0–100 cm, and 1–300 cm. The uppermost horizon, 0–30 cm contains approximately 191 Pg of organic carbon. The 0–100 cm horizon contains an estimated 496 Pg of organic carbon, and the 0–300 cm horizon contains an estimated 1024 Pg of organic carbon. These estimates more than doubled the previously known carbon pools in permafrost soils. Additional carbon stocks exist in yedoma
Yedoma is an organic-rich Pleistocene-age loess permafrost with ice content of 50–90% by volume. The amount of carbon trapped in this type of permafrost is much more prevalent than originally thought and may be about 500 Gt, that is almost 100 times the amount of carbon released into the air each...

 (407 Pg), carbon rich loess
Loess is an aeolian sediment formed by the accumulation of wind-blown silt, typically in the 20–50 micrometre size range, twenty percent or less clay and the balance equal parts sand and silt that are loosely cemented by calcium carbonate...

 deposits found throughout Siberia and isolated regions of North America, and deltaic deposits (241 Pg) throughout the Arctic. These deposits are generally deeper than the 3 m investigated in traditional studies. Many concerns arise because of the large amount of carbon stored in permafrost soils. Until recently, the amount of carbon present in permafrost was not taken into account in climate models and global carbon budgets. Thawing permafrost may release great quantities of old carbon stored in permafrost to the atmosphere.

Carbon release from permafrost

Carbon stored within arctic soils and permafrost is susceptible to release due to several different mechanisms. Carbon that is stored in permafrost is released back into the atmosphere as either carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (CH4). Aerobic respiration releases carbon dioxide, while anaerobic respiration
Anaerobic respiration
Anaerobic respiration is a form of respiration using electron acceptors other than oxygen. Although oxygen is not used as the final electron acceptor, the process still uses a respiratory electron transport chain; it is respiration without oxygen...

 releases methane.
  • Microbial activity releases carbon through respiration. Increased microbial decomposition due to warming conditions is believed to be a major source of carbon to the atmosphere. The rate of microbial decomposition within organic soils, including thawed permafrost, depends on environmental controls. These controls include soil temperature, moisture availability, nutrient availability, and oxygen availability.

  • Methane clathrate
    Methane clathrate
    Methane clathrate, also called methane hydrate, hydromethane, methane ice, "fire ice", natural gas hydrate or just gas hydrate, is a solid clathrate compound in which a large amount of methane is trapped within a crystal structure of water, forming a solid similar to ice...

    , or hydrates, occur within and below permafrost soils. Because of the low permeability of permafrost soils, methane gas is unable to migrate vertically through the soil column. As permafrost temperature increases, permeability also increases, allowing once trapped methane gas to move vertically and escape. Dissociation
    Dissociation (chemistry)
    Dissociation in chemistry and biochemistry is a general process in which ionic compounds separate or split into smaller particles, ions, or radicals, usually in a reversible manner...

     of gas hydrates is common along the Arctic coastline, yet estimates for dissociation of gas hydrates from terrestrial permafrost remains unclear.

  • Thermokarst/permafrost degradation as a result of climate change and increased mean annual air temperatures throughout the Arctic threatens to release large quantities of carbon back into the atmosphere. The spatial extent of permafrost decreases in warming climate, releasing large amounts of stored carbon.

  • As air and permafrost temperatures change, above ground vegetation also changes. Increasing temperatures facilitate the transfer of soil carbon to growing vegetation on the surface. This transfer removes carbon from the soil and relocates it to the terrestrial carbon pool where plants process, store, and respire it, moving it to the atmosphere.

  • Forest fires in the boreal forests and tundra fires alter the landscape and release large quantities of stored organic carbon into the atmosphere through combustion. As these fires burn, they remove organic matter from the surface. Removal of the protective organic mat that insulates the soil exposes the underlying soil and permafrost to increased solar radiation, which in turn increases the soil temperature, active layer thickness, and changes soil moisture. Changes in the soil moisture and saturation alter the ratio of oxic to anoxic decomposition within the soil.

  • Hydrologic processes remove and mobilize carbon, carrying it downstream. Mobilization occurs due to leaching, litter fall, and erosion. Mobilization is believed to be primarily due to increased primary production in the Arctic resulting in increased leaf litter entering streams and increasing the dissolved organic carbon content of the stream. Leaching of soil organic carbon from permafrost soils is also accelerated by warming climate and by erosion along river and stream banks freeing the carbon from the previously frozen soil.

Carbon is continually cycling between soils, vegetation, and the atmosphere. Currently, carbon flux from permafrost soils is minimal, however studies suggest that future warming an permafrost degradation will increase the CO2 flux from the soils. Thaw deepens the active layer, exposing old carbon that has been in storage for decades, to centuries, to millennia. The amount of carbon that will be released from warming conditions depends on depth of thaw, carbon content within the thawed soil, and physical changes to the environment. The likelihood of the entire carbon pool mobilizing and entering the atmosphere is low despite the large volumes stored in the soil. Although temperatures are projected to rise, it does not imply complete loss of permafrost and mobilization of the entire carbon pool. Much of the ground underlain by permafrost will remain frozen even if warming temperatures increase the thaw depth or increase thermokarsting and permafrost degradation.

Environmental impacts

Warmer conditions are expected to cause spatial declines in permafrost extent and thickening of the active layer
Active layer
In environments containing permafrost, the active layer is the top layer of soil that thaws during the summer and freezes again during the autumn. In all climates, whether they contain permafrost or not, the temperature in the lower levels of the soil will remain more stable than that at the...

. This decline in the extent and volume of permafrost enables the mobilization of stored soil organic carbon to the biosphere and atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane. Additionally, these changes are believed to impact ecosystems and alter the vegetation that is present on the surface. Increased carbon uptake by plants is expected to be relatively small when compared to the amount of carbon released by permafrost degradation. Tundra vegetation contains 0.4 kg of carbon per m2 while a shift to boreal forests could increase the above ground carbon pool to 5 kg of carbon per m2. Tundra soil however, contains ten times that amount.

Additionally, a sudden and steady release of carbon dioxide and methane from permafrost soils may lead to a positive feedback
Positive feedback
Positive feedback is a process in which the effects of a small disturbance on a system include an increase in the magnitude of the perturbation. That is, A produces more of B which in turn produces more of A. In contrast, a system that responds to a perturbation in a way that reduces its effect is...

 cycle where warming releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas
Greenhouse gas
A greenhouse gas is a gas in an atmosphere that absorbs and emits radiation within the thermal infrared range. This process is the fundamental cause of the greenhouse effect. The primary greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone...

, causes atmospheric concentrations to increase, causing subsequent warming. This scenario is thought to be a potential runaway climate change
Runaway climate change
Runaway climate change describes a theoretical scenario in which the climate system passes a threshold or tipping point, after which internal positive feedback effects cause the climate to continue changing without further external forcings...


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