Nav: Home

UD prof studies how permafrost thawing affects vegetation, carbon cycle

March 02, 2016

Neil Sturchio, professor and chair of the University of Delaware's Department of Geological Sciences, is exploring how the thawing of permafrost, a subsurface layer of soil that remains mostly frozen throughout the year, affects vegetation and the carbon cycle in the Toolik Lake area of the Alaska's North Slope.

"There is a lot of carbon frozen in the Arctic soil's permafrost layer. If this all thaws out, prevailing thought is that the carbon in the soil could be released to the atmosphere and potentially accelerate global warming," said Sturchio.

Climate models predict 25-50 percent more precipitation in the Arctic region by the end of the century, mostly as fall and winter snow. However, extra snow can also mean extra moisture during warmer seasons like spring and summer.

In 2012, Sturchio and colleagues from several universities conducted a study to determine whether methane and carbon dioxide production in Arctic soils are affected by precipitation, mainly snow accumulation.

Specifically, they studied the long-term effects of projected changes in snow accrual on the methane emissions from moist acidic tundra, which covers over 25 percent of the Alaskan Arctic.

Snow fence experiment

During fieldwork, the scientists used an existing snow fence that had been in place for 18 years to explore what changes in average snow accumulation might mean for the Toolik Lake area. The researchers hypothesized that increased snow accumulation would result in wetter and warmer soils, greater thaw depth and an increase in the abundance of shrubs and tall, grass-like plants called sedges. They also predicted that these soil conditions would lead to increased methane emissions.

Typical winter snowfall depth in the area is about one foot. The snow fence, which stands approximately 9 feet high by 200 feet long, was built perpendicular to the wind direction so that snowdrifts would form behind the fence. This allowed the researchers to mimic various snowfall accumulations for the region, from below normal to average to much higher levels of winter precipitation.

In summer 2012, the researchers established four research plots and took biweekly soil measurements and soil gas samples during the growing season from late May through August. They monitored soil temperature and gas compositions at 10, 20, 35 and 50-centimeter depths; water moisture; oxygen saturation; the amounts and carbon isotope ratios of methane and carbon dioxide; and the thickness of unfrozen ground, known as thaw depth. They also characterized the plant species at peak season.

Snow blanket means longer growing season for plants

As they reviewed the data, the researchers discovered that in areas with increased winter precipitation, the ground didn't freeze as deeply because the snow acted like a blanket, keeping the ground warmer than normal.

Their findings showed that higher snow accumulations resulted in increased soil temperatures and a deeper thawing of the permafrost, which, in turn, resulted in increased microbial activity, increased melting depth and more water content in the soil that led to increased production of methane and more plant growth.

In areas with reduced snow accumulation, however, the soil acted as a methane sink because of enhanced activity of methane-oxidizing bacteria.

The study results suggest that the amount of methane fluctuation was primarily in response to changes in the amount and type of vegetation present, as well as the temperature and moisture of the soil, rather than in how much carbon was in the soil.

When the snow melted, scientists noted a longer growing season for plants and shrubs. In areas with higher snow, the soil also collapsed when the ice that was occupying the soil's pore space melted, causing depressions in the ground.

"It affected more than just the amount of methane produced, it changed the landscape and the types of plants that grew there. We started seeing woody plants -- dwarf trees like birch and other shrubs -- instead of just moss, lichens and grass. This is something you could predict would happen under climate change," Sturchio explained.

More work is needed to better understand the interactions between soil and vegetation processes that affect the release of methane and to determine whether or not the Arctic tundra will act as a significant methane source or methane sink in the future.

"It's safe to say a lot of things are changing in the Arctic. But depending on where you go, the climate change effects are somewhat different," Sturchio said.

The researcher team recently published their findings in the journal Global Change Biology.
-end-
Co-authors on the work include the paper's lead author Elena Blanc-Betes and the project's principal investigator Miguel Gonzalez-Meler, from University of Illinois at Chicago; Jeffrey Welker from University of Alaska; and Jeffrey Chanton from Florida State University.

This work was funded in part by the Department of Energy, Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program, and the National Science Foundation.

University of Delaware

Related Climate Change Articles:

The black forest and climate change
Silver and Douglas firs could replace Norway spruce in the long run due to their greater resistance to droughts.
For some US counties, climate change will be particularly costly
A highly granular assessment of the impacts of climate change on the US economy suggests that each 1°Celsius increase in temperature will cost 1.2 percent of the country's gross domestic product, on average.
Climate change label leads to climate science acceptance
A new Cornell University study finds that labels matter when it comes to acceptance of climate science.
Was that climate change?
A new four-step 'framework' aims to test the contribution of climate change to record-setting extreme weather events.
It's more than just climate change
Accurately modeling climate change and interactive human factors -- including inequality, consumption, and population -- is essential for the effective science-based policies and measures needed to benefit and sustain current and future generations.
Climate change scientists should think more about sex
Climate change can have a different impact on male and female fish, shellfish and other marine animals, with widespread implications for the future of marine life and the production of seafood.
Climate change prompts Alaska fish to change breeding behavior
A new University of Washington study finds that one of Alaska's most abundant freshwater fish species is altering its breeding patterns in response to climate change, which could impact the ecology of northern lakes that already acutely feel the effects of a changing climate.
Uncertainties related to climate engineering limit its use in curbing climate change
Climate engineering refers to the systematic, large-scale modification of the environment using various climate intervention techniques.
Public holds polarized views about climate change and trust in climate scientists
There are gaping divisions in Americans' views across every dimension of the climate debate, including causes and cures for climate change and trust in climate scientists and their research, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
The psychology behind climate change denial
In a new thesis in psychology, Kirsti Jylhä at Uppsala University has studied the psychology behind climate change denial.

Related Climate Change Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Jumpstarting Creativity
Our greatest breakthroughs and triumphs have one thing in common: creativity. But how do you ignite it? And how do you rekindle it? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on jumpstarting creativity. Guests include economist Tim Harford, producer Helen Marriage, artificial intelligence researcher Steve Engels, and behavioral scientist Marily Oppezzo.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#524 The Human Network
What does a network of humans look like and how does it work? How does information spread? How do decisions and opinions spread? What gets distorted as it moves through the network and why? This week we dig into the ins and outs of human networks with Matthew Jackson, Professor of Economics at Stanford University and author of the book "The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviours".