Microbial carbon turnover and greenhouse gas formation from permafrost soils revealed by 14CO2 analysis. (Permafrost organic matter degradability)

To evaluate the degradability of organic matter in permafrost soil of the High Arctic, we will analyze the 14C signature of CO2 respired from different sites in the heterogeneous area of the Bayelva River complementing our existing data set (KOP 115).

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  • field work
  • long-term monitoring
  • sios


  • terrestrial biology
  • geology
  • space physics

Project Keywords

  • biosphere / terrestrial ecosystems / alpine/tundra

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Global warming is predicted and already documented to be most pronounced in the Arctic, which will have significant effects on the carbon cycle in this region and the large organic carbon (OC) stocks contained in permafrost soils. As a consequence of permafrost thaw, the currently inert (because frozen) pools of organic matter gets vulnerable to decay. Recent studies already document increases in thaw depths in permafrost areas as well as increasing ground temperatures. Rising temperatures are anticipated to stimulate soil microbial activity and thereby decomposition rates of the organic matter decomposition, which will result in rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions released into the atmosphere. The sensitivity of the Arctic carbon cycle during the next decades and thus the strength of the permafrost carbon feedback, however, are highly uncertain. Uncertainties arise from the difficulty of assessing CO2 and CH4 emissions in the highly heterogeneous Arctic regions where carbon fluxes show large spatial and interannual variability. The temperature sensitivity of the microbial decomposition - the main driver of OC decomposition and GHG emissions - has been investigated in several studies mainly based on incubations experiments. The results of these experiments suggest that a fraction of the organic matter in permafrost soils is relatively labile and subject to temperature-sensitive decomposition, while another fraction seems to obscure the intrinsic temperature sensitivity and supposedly turn over on longer timescales of several decades to hundreds of years and thus to consist of older, potentially more resistant organic compounds. However, these laboratory studies reduce the complexity of the Arctic carbon cycle to a few parameters that are tested. The number of field studies investigating OC turnover in permafrost is very limited, but such studies are urgently needed for a comprehensive view. The field studies performed so far point to rising portions of old OC release from permafrost soils upon longer or more intense thawing suggesting that old, previously frozen OC is readily available for microbial metabolism. Because field investigations considering the complexity of the organic matter decomposition in Arctic permafrost soil in field studies are rare, we will investigate the degradability of organic matter in permafrost soil in the High Arctic at Ny-Ålesund. This region >70°?N has not been investigated in such detail as permafrost areas at lower latitudes such as e.g. Siberia and Alaska. At Svalbard a significant warming of air temperatures has already been detected since 1960 (Hanssen-Bauer and Førland, 1998). However, the effect of rising soil temperatures on permafrost soil biogeochemistry is poorly constrained. The microbial respiration is suggested to be relatively low in the foreland of the East Brøgger Glacier (Bekku et al, 2004) and limited by the low availability both carbon and nitrogen (Yoshitake et al., 2007). These studies however, were designed to investigate OC cycling in soils freshly exposed by the retreating glacier. No information is available so far for permafrost soils that are not directly influenced by the East Brøgger Glacier such as our sites investigated in KOP 115. The aim of our proposed study at Ny-Ålesund is to determine the decomposability of the organic matter at different soil depths. In our field campaign in 2017 we will sample CO2 respired at several sites investigated during our field campaign in 2008 (KOP 115) using respiration chambers as well as deep CO2 samplers. In addition we will collect soil samples for 14C analyses of microbial membrane lipids, incubation experiments, and molecular studies. These results will give us additional information on OC pools metabolized by the microbial community and effects of elevated temperature and water content.

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