production following permafrost thaw


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Long-term CO2 production following permafrost thaw

Nature Climate Change
21 August 2012
17 June 2013
Published online
28 July 2013

Thawing permafrost represents a poorly understood feedback mechanism of climate change in the Arctic, but with a potential impact owing to stored carbon being mobilized1, 2, 3, 4, 5. We have quantified the long-term loss of carbon (C) from thawing permafrost in Northeast Greenland from 1996 to 2008 by combining repeated sediment sampling to assess changes in C stock and >12 years of CO2 production in incubated permafrost samples. Field observations show that the active-layer thickness has increased by >1 cm yr−1 but thawing has not resulted in a detectable decline in C stocks. Laboratory mineralization rates at 5 °C resulted in a C loss between 9 and 75%, depending on drainage, highlighting the potential of fast mobilization of permafrost C under aerobic conditions, but also that C at near-saturated conditions may remain largely immobilized over decades. This is confirmed by a three-pool C dynamics model that projects a potential C loss between 13 and 77% for 50 years of incubation at 5 °C.

At a glance


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  1. Trends in permafrost thawing and soil organic C content.
    Figure 1
  2. C loss during a 12-year-long incubation at 5[thinsp][deg]C.
    Figure 2
  3. C loss during a three-year-long incubation based on five sites
    Figure 3


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Author information


  1. Center for Permafrost (CENPERM), Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen, DK-1350 Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Bo Elberling,
    • Anders Michelsen,
    • Hanne H. Christiansen,
    • Louise Berg &
    • Charlotte Sigsgaard
  2. Geology Department, The University Centre in Svalbard, UNIS, N-9171 Longyearbyen, Norway

    • Bo Elberling &
    • Hanne H. Christiansen
  3. Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, DK-2100 Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Anders Michelsen
  4. Department of Biology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida 32611, USA

    • Christina Schädel &
    • Edward A. G. Schuur
  5. Department of Biosciences, Aarhus University, DK-4000, Roskilde, Denmark

    • Mikkel P. Tamstorf


B.E. initiated the experimental work in 1996 and compiled data and wrote most of the paper; A.M. carried out most of the chemistry analyses, C.S and E.A.G.S. made the C dynamics model; B.E. and H.H.C. carried out the 2008 permafrost coring, L.B. was involved in the 2008 sampling and data analyses, H.H.C. initiated the 1996 ZEROCALM monitoring as part of the GeoBasis programme and M.P.T. and C.S. were responsible for CALM measurements as part of the GeoBasis programme. All co-authors contributed to the writing.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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