Biological and Environmental Research - Earth and Environmental System Sciences
Earth and Environmental System Modeling

Ice-Wedge Polygon Formation Impacts Permafrost Carbon Storage and Vulnerability to Top-Down Thaw in Arctic Coastal Plain Soils

Wednesday, December 13, 2017 - 09:15
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Ice-wedge polygons are ubiquitous, patterned ground features throughout Arctic coastal plains and river deltas. The progressive expansion of ice wedges influences polygon development and strongly affects cryoturbation and soil formation. Thus, we hypothesized that polygon type impacts the distribution and composition of soil organic carbon (C) stocks across the landscape and that such information can improve estimates of permafrost C stocks vulnerable to active layer thickening and increased decomposition due to climatic change. We quantified the distribution of soil C across entire polygon profiles (2-m depth) for three developmental types – flat-centered (FCP), low-centered (LCP), and high-centered (HCP) polygons (3 replicates of each) – formed on glaciomarine sediments within and near the Barrow Environmental Observatory at the northern tip of Alaska. Active layer thickness averaged 45 cm and did not vary among polygon types. Similarly, active layer C stocks were unaffected by polygon type, but permafrost C stocks increased from FCPs to LCPs to HCPs despite greater ice volumes in HCPs. These differences were due to a greater presence of organic horizons in the upper permafrost of LCPs and, especially, HCPs. On average, C stocks in polygon interiors were double those of troughs, on a square meter basis. However, HCPs were physically smaller than LCPs and FCPs, which affected estimates of C stocks at the landscape scale. Accounting for the number of polygons per unit area and the proportional distribution of troughs versus interiors, we estimated permafrost C stocks (2-m depth) increased from 259 Mg C ha-1 in FCPs to 366 Mg C ha-1 in HCPs. Active layer C stocks did not differ among polygon types and averaged 328 Mg C ha-1. We used our detailed polygon profiles to investigate the impact of active layer deepening as projected by Earth system models under future climate scenarios. Because HCPs have a greater proportion of upper permafrost C stocks in organic horizons, permafrost C in areas dominated by this polygon type may be at greater risk for destabilization. Thus, accounting for geospatial distributions of ice-wedge polygon types and associated variations in C stocks and composition could improve observational estimates of regional C stocks and their vulnerability to changing climatic conditions.

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