Storage, landscape partitioning and lability of soil organic matter in permafrost terrain

University dissertation from Stockholm : Stockholm University

Abstract: Recent estimates indicate that soils in the northern circumpolar permafrost region store substantial amounts of soil organic carbon (SOC). This reservoir has accumulated over 10-100.000 years and is often preserved in a relatively undecomposed state because frozen and often water-logged conditions prevented microbial degradation. Under a projected future climate change caused by rising greenhouse gases, permafrost thaw and rapid decomposition of vulnerable soil organic matter (SOM) could provide a positive feedback on global warming by releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide and/or methane into the atmosphere.SOC pools have large regional and landscape-level variability depending on topographic, ecoclimatic and edaphic factors. As a consequence, large scale maps and even regional data sets describing SOC storage should be taken with caution since they are highly simplified. The purpose of this thesis is to improve our knowledge on quantity and quality of SOM in different areas of continuous permafrost and provide regional high quality data from hitherto under-sampled regions for future assessment of the potential remobilization of SOC under global warming. A special focus is put on SOC partitioning within the landscape and soil horizon levels as well as on soil forming processes under periglacial conditions. Throughout the five different study areas presented in this thesis the landscape mean SOC storage ranges between 8 and 30 kg C m-2, while site differences are in the order of 0 to 80 kg C m-2. Paper I presents new SOC data from contrasting areas in continuous permafrost: a mountainous High Arctic site in Zackenberg (NE Greenland) and lowland sites in Shalaurovo and Cherskiy lower Kolyma (NE Siberia). The main difference is that about 60% of the Zackenberg area is higher elevation terrain with mostly barren ground and very low SOC content, resulting in a much lower landscape-level mean SOC storage compared to the Siberian sites. In addition, Paper II shows that even when comparing two lowland sites located only 150 km apart in Taymyr Peninsula (N Siberia) the mean SOC storage differs with 40% between the areas. This emphasizes that even in lowlands on a regional scale not only different landforms and land cover but also microrelief, soil moisture and especially parent material play a very important role for obtaining more accurate SOC storage estimates.Throughout this thesis a special emphasis is put on understanding the role of cryoturbation for SOC storage. Signs of cryoturbation were observed at all sites and 14C dates show that this process is occurring since at least the early Holocene. On average, 30% of all SOC in the top meter of soil is located in buried C-enriched pockets. The only exception is Zackenberg, with only 12%, where slope processes were the dominant mechanism for burying C-enriched material into deeper layers.We use the weight ratio of Carbon/Nitrogen (C/N) to gain information about SOM decomposability. Generally, all sites show the same trend that the C/N ratio decreases with soil depth. Top organic soil and peat samples have always the highest C/N ratios, suggesting little decomposed SOM. Except for the Zackenberg site, the buried C-enriched pockets have significantly higher C/N ratios than the adjacent mineral subsoil samples. We assume that this C-enriched material was exposed over longer time periods to aerobic decomposition and was therefore relatively well decomposed before it was buried by reactivated slope processes.

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