Circumpolar distribution and carbon storage of thermokarst landscapes

Published by Christina Schaedel on

Thermokarst is the process whereby the thawing of ice-rich permafrost ground causes land subsidence, resulting in development of distinctive landforms. Accelerated thermokarst due to climate change will damage infrastructure, but also impact hydrology, ecology and biogeochemistry. Here, we present a circumpolar assessment of the distribution of thermokarst landscapes, defined as landscapes comprised of current thermokarst landforms and areas susceptible to future thermokarst development. At 3.6 × 106 km2, thermokarst landscapes are estimated to cover 20% of the northern permafrost region, with approximately equal contributions from three landscape types where characteristic wetland, lake and hillslope thermokarst landforms occur. We estimate that approximately half of the below-ground organic carbon within the study region is stored in thermokarst landscapes. Our results highlight the importance of explicitly considering thermokarst when assessing impacts of climate change, including future landscape greenhouse gas emissions, and provide a means for assessing such impacts at the circumpolar scale.