Millennial-scale carbon accumulation and molecular transformation in a permafrost core from Interior Alaska
Organic carbon stored in high-latitude permafrost represents a potential positive feedback to climate warming as well as a valuable store of paleoenvironmental information. The below-freezing conditions have effectively removed permafrost organic material from the modern carbon cycle and preserved its pre-freezing bulk and molecular states. The conditions that lead to efficient burial of organic carbon (OC) within permafrost were investigated by measuring OC stocks, past accumulation rates, and biogeochemical composition of a permafrost core taken from Interior Alaska dating back to 40 ka. The post-glacial Marine Isotope Stage 1 is represented by the top 1.2 m of the core and contains 64.7 kg OC/m2 with an accumulation rate of 4.3 g OC/m2/yr. The sediments that accumulated around the Last Glacial Maximum contain 9.9 kg OC/m2 with an accumulation rate of 0.5 g OC/m2/yr. Carbon storage (144.7 kg OC/m2) and accumulation (26.1 g OC/m2/yr) are both observed to be greatest between 35 and 40 ka, late during the Marine Isotope Stage 3 global interstadial. The extent of OC degradation was assessed using lignin and amino acid biomarkers with both approaches indicating well-preserved contemporary active layer and interstadial OC, whereas stadial OC was highly degraded. Lignin compositional indices throughout the core appear altered by sorptive processes that confounded some expected trends in the overall organic matter composition, while amino acids provided a more integrated pattern of change. Significant correlations between carbon-normalized hydroxyproline and total lignin concentrations further support the usefulness of hydroxyproline as an indicator for the abundance of plant organic matter. A novel amino acid plant-microbial index of the ratio of microbial-specific muramic acid and diaminopimelic acid biomarkers to the plant-specific hydroxyproline biomarker, indicate a transition from plant-dominated organic matter in fresh organic soils (index values of 0.01–0.20) to more microbial-dominated organic matter in degraded mineral soils (index values of 0.50–2.50). The branched glycerol dialkyl glycerol tetraether composition is complex and is not immediately compatible with existing temperature transfer functions. Residence time within the active layer is interpreted to integrate key factors such as primary productivity, inorganic sediment delivery, and other climate factors that control soil organic matter degradation. The Marine Isotope Stage 3, mid-Wisconsin interstadial period at this locality was forest-dominated and suggests the currently prevailing tundra ecotone is sensitive to environmental change. The majority of buried permafrost OC is high in degradability and if thawed, would be expected to be highly vulnerable to microbial decomposition.