Seven-year trends of CO2 exchange in a tundra ecosystem affected by long-term permafrost thaw
Arctic warming has led to permafrost degradation and ground subsidence, created as a result of ground ice melting. Frozen soil organic matter that thaws can increase carbon (C) emissions to the atmosphere, but this can be offset in part by increases in plant growth. The balance of plant and microbial processes, and how this balance changes through time, determines how permafrost ecosystems influence future climate change via the C cycle. This study addressed this question both on short (interannual) and longer (decadal) time periods by measuring C fluxes over a seven-year period at three sites representing a gradient of time since permafrost thaw. All three sites were upland tundra ecosystems located in Interior Alaska but differed in the extent of permafrost thaw and ground subsidence. Results showed an increasing growing season (May – September) trend in gross primary productivity (GPP), net ecosystem exchange (NEE), aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP), and annual NEE at all sites over the seven year study period from 2004 to 2010, but no change in annual and growing season ecosystem respiration (Reco). These trends appeared to most closely follow increases in the depth to permafrost that occurred over the same time period. During the seven-year period, sites with more permafrost degradation had significantly greater GPP compared to where degradation was least, but also greater growing season Reco. Adding in winter Reco decreased, in part, the summer C sink and left only the site with the most permafrost degradation C neutral, with the other sites still C sinks. Annual C balance was strongly dependent on winter Reco, which, compared to the growing season, was relatively data-poor due to extreme environmental conditions. As a result, we cannot yet conclude whether the increased NEE in the growing season is truly sustained on an annual basis. If it turns out that winter measurements shown here are an underestimate, we may indeed find these systems are already losing net C to the atmosphere.