CYCLOPS: Carbon Cycling Linkages of Permafrost Systems

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Geography

Abstract

Terrestrial ecosystems currently absorb one quarter of the carbon dioxide released by fossil fuel burning into the atmosphere, and thus reduce the rate of climate change. As conditions become more favourable for plant growth, most models predict that high latitudes will take up more carbon during the 21st century. However, vast stores of carbon are frozen in boreal and arctic permafrost, and warming may result in some of this carbon being released to the atmosphere. The recent inclusion of permafrost thaw in large-scale model simulations has suggested that the permafrost feedback is potentially so significant that it could reduce substantially the predicted global net uptake of carbon by terrestrial ecosystems during the 21st century, with major implications for the rate of climate change.
Large uncertainties remain in predicting rates of permafrost thaw and in determining the impacts of thaw in contrasting ecosystems, with many of the key processes missing from carbon-climate models. Firstly, the role that different plant communities play in insulating soils and protecting permafrost is poorly quantified, with key groups such as mosses absent in most models. In addition, fire disturbance can substantially accelerate permafrost thaw, and hence the ability of permafrost-protecting plant communities to recover from fire may play a key role in determining permafrost resilience. Secondly, different ecosystems may respond differently to thaw with contrasting effects on release of greenhouse gasses. In free-draining ecosystems, thaw may result in the net release of carbon due to increased decomposition of previously frozen organic matter. On the other hand, when thawing takes place in peatlands, soil subsidence can effectively raise the water table, which could result in carbon accumulation. However, this potential negative feedback may be offset by enhanced release of the more powerful greenhouse gas, methane. Importantly, the full range of feedbacks to permafrost thaw in these contrasting ecosystems is not currently reflected in process-based models.
To address these issues, we will undertake directed fieldwork campaigns to determine (1) the role that different plant communities play in protecting permafrost within different soil types, and in unburned and fire-disturbed ecosystems, and (2) the impacts of permafrost thaw on fluxes of carbon dioxide and methane in free-draining versus peatland systems. Through links to Canadian partners, data will be collected from a range of field sites where permafrost monitoring is ongoing, including: (i) two contrasting boreal peatlands differing in permafrost extent, and where there is permafrost degradation; (ii) burnt and unburned sites within three important forest types in boreal Canada. Data will be provided from burnt and unburned moist acidic tundra within the continuous permafrost zone in Alaska by our US partners. The spatially variable vegetation recovery at the fire sites allows relationships between vegetation and permafrost to be tested in detail, while comparisons between the tundra, forest and peatland sites provide insights into the impacts of permafrost thaw in contrasting ecosystems.
Critically, these data will be used to develop, parameterise and evaluate a detailed process-based model of vegetation-soil-permafrost interactions. The in-depth representation of vegetation-permafrost linkages will improve predictions of rates of permafrost thaw. The model will be the first to simulate the full range of biogeochemical feedbacks (methane and carbon dioxide) in free-draining versus wetland ecosystems. Furthermore, through links with Met Office scientists, our model will be coupled to the Joint UK Land Environment Simulator (JULES), allowing regional simulations to be run, coupled to a climate model. Ultimately, our project will improve predictions of both the rates and consequences of permafrost thaw, and help determine the potential impacts on 21st century climate change.

Planned Impact

We aim to improve predictions of the rate and consequences of permafrost thaw, including feedbacks to climate. Therefore, the outputs of this research will be of interest to stakeholders in the Arctic, and policy makers nationally and internationally, as well as the general public.
Land managers and governmental organisations such as Natural Resources Canada (NRC) and the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) have mandates to preserve the natural environment. Through our contacts (partners Wolfe and Kokelj) we have constructed key parts of our proposal to build on and extend NRC and DIAND research. Our project outputs will benefit these organisations in understanding permafrost systems and carbon cycling, with this being of heightened benefit to them given that our work will occur within, and extend, their framework of ongoing monitoring. We will visit NRC and DIAND partners to strengthen our relationship with the Canadian government and to increase the impact of our project for Canadian partners. We will contribute our data to their databases, and work with our partners to implement a knowledge exchange plan. Our project partners have been involved since the initiation of the proposal and will join us on our field work, including our preparatory field visits, ensuring optimum benefit of our work to them.
Our links with the UK Met Office (see Academic Beneficiaries) means that our findings will be incorporated into coupled climate-carbon cycle modelling, and thus influence predictions of 21st century climate change. This link will maximise the impact of work in terms of its relevance to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and international policy makers.
Our work will be of interest to communities concerned about sustainability of their way of life, water resources, and changes to permafrost and thermokarst. We will engage with local communities in Canada, to explain our research and to learn more about their views on, and experiences with, climate change. We will inform the public of our activities through information displays and talks at the Yellowknife Northern Heritage Centre and Yukon College at Whitehorse.
The subject area lends itself well to engagement of public interest, and will be an excellent opportunity to promote NERC science in the UK. The public are interested in high latitude ecosystems (e.g. BBC Frozen Planet series), and there is increasing reporting of permafrost issues in the media. The PI and Co-Is are committed to communicating science to the general public. For instance, we had a successful exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition (2007) on arctic warming. The Impact funding will also allow us to enhance our schools and museum outreach. These activities will include new presentations and development of mobile stands that can be used at museums (we already have good outreach experience with these) and with SciFun, the Scottish Science and Technology Roadshow. In addition, the PDRAs will visit local schools to explain their research, and promote science as a career. We will use the communication offices of our institutions to inform local and national media of our major findings.
Finally, a project website will be established to communicate project outcomes to key stakeholders and the public. We will include videos and footage from field sites and social networking technologies, including experiments with twitter to facilitate broad dissemination.
In summary, together with our plans for academic dissemination, our impact plan will ensure our results have the maximum impact in improving the representation of permafrost in IPCC-facing, coupled climate-C-cycle modelling. We will outline our findings to local government organisations through lectures and through links with our project partners. Furthermore, we will use various media, and museum, school and college outreach activities, to ensure that our research reaches wider society in the UK and Canada.
 
Description Our work has focused on the potential for permafrost thaw to promote the release of the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

For methane, we have observed high rates of release following thaw in boreal peatlands. However, contrary to expectations this was not because previously frozen organic matter is now decomposing but rather it was related to thaw causing water-logging near the peat surface. This in turn resulted in the decomposition of recent organic matter inputs into the peat soils now taking place under anaerobic conditions and resulting in methane release. This new understanding changes how models should simulate rates of methane release from thawing permafrost peatlands in the boreal biome.

We did though find evidence of previously frozen organic matter decomposing to release carbon dioxide in freely drained soils in boreal forests which had experienced fires. These fires alter soil physical conditions and promote deep thaw of the permafrost. In forested areas, where mosses are very effective insulators of soils, disturbances such as fire may be required before deep thaw occurs, even with global warming.
Exploitation Route We are meeting with modellers at the Met Office Hadley Centre to discuss how to reflect our findings in Earth Systems models.

We have also met with the Department of Energy and Climate Change science team
Sectors Environment

URL http://www.geos.ed.ac.uk/cyclops/
 
Description Our work on carbon dioxide and methane release from thawing permafrost is important for predicting future rates of methane production. We have met with Met Office modellers and travelled to London to with the Department of Energy and Climate Change science team to discuss our research on methane release from thawing permafrost. This meeting took place on 24th March 2015
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Environment
Impact Types Policy & public services

 
Description Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) funding for NERC Arctic Research Programme
Amount £185,000 (GBP)
Organisation Department of Energy and Climate Change 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2012 
End 03/2015
 
Description Fieldwork collaboration with Antoni Lewkowicz 
Organisation University of Ottawa
Department Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics
Country Canada 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We visited fieldsites around Whitehorse with Antoni Lewkowicz
Collaborator Contribution Antoni Lewkowicz has been working at sites along the Alaskan Highway for a long time and was able to help us find ideal fieldstes for this project.
Impact Antoni Lewkowicz is a coauthor on a manuscript which is currently in review.
Start Year 2012
 
Description Fieldwork collaboration with Chris Burn 
Organisation Carleton University
Country Canada 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We travelled to visit Chris at his fieldsite 400km north of where we were working.
Collaborator Contribution Chris Burn lent us permafrost coring equipment worth several 100s of dollars and provided valuable advice regarding sampling locations.
Impact The research carried out in the Yukon within CYCLOPS could not have been carried out without Chris Burn's help. All the soil and permafrost publications that come out of CYCLOPS have benefitted from this collaboration.
Start Year 2012
 
Description Fieldwork collaboration with Steven Wolfe 
Organisation Natural Resources Canada
Department Geological Survey of Canada
Country Canada 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Working with Steven Wolfe in the field while in the Northwest Territories of Canada
Collaborator Contribution Steven Wolfe worked with us on identifying potential fieldsites and then loaned us permafrost coring equipment.
Impact Steven Wolfe is a coauthor on a publication which is currently in review.
Start Year 2012
 
Description Carbon cycling linkages in permafrost systems 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Iain Hartley and Cristian Estop Aragones gave a presentation to of our research plans to First Nations' representatives in Yellowknife and Rae.

In Yellowknife we are working on First Nations' land. We gave presentations to the two First Nations communities involved, explaining our research plans and consulted on field site selection. We made plans to meet again during the 2014 field season.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
 
Description Interview on BBC Radio 4 Today Programme 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was interviewed about on the Today Programme about the impacts of forest fires on permafrost C dynamics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Interview on Permsfrost C on Inside Science on BBC Radio 4 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I described the permafrost C feedback as part of the BBC Radio 4 Inside Science programme on the Internation Year of Soil.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Meeting with Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) science team 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Iain Hartley travelled to London to present the work on methane fluxes to the DECC science team. They were extremely well informed and we had a good discussion about the work and the team was very interested in the findings. However, the DECC team emphasised that to have any impact on their policy agenda a single study would have to demonstrate that predictions of future climate change would over or under-estimated by more than 0.5oC. It was a very valuable meeting from our point of view as it made it clear that to influence climate change policy it is necessary to contribute to wider understanding and have findings reflected in IPCC reports.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description UK Dept of Business Enterprise Innovation and Skills 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact An invited visit to BEIS to discuss forest monitoring, reporting for international climate agreements
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017