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

Identifying the Main Drivers of Soil Carbon Response to Climate Change in Arctic and Boreal Alaska

Thursday, December 17, 2015 - 16:40
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Boreal and arctic regions represent the largest reservoir of carbon among terrestrial biomes. Most of this carbon is stored deep in the soil in permafrost where frozen organic matter is protected from decomposition. The vulnerability of soil carbon stocks to a changing climate in high latitudes depends on a number of physical and ecological processes. The importance of these processes in controlling the dynamics of soil carbon stocks vary across regions because of variability in vegetation composition, drainage condition, and permafrost characteristics.

To better understand the main drivers of the vulnerability of soil carbon stocks to climate change in Alaska, we ran a process-based ecosystem model, the Terrestrial Ecosystem Model. This model explicitly simulates interactions between the carbon cycle and permafrost dynamics and was coupled with a disturbance model and a model of biogenic methane dynamics to assess historical and projected soil carbon dynamics in Alaska, from 1950 to 2100.
The uncertainties related to climate, fire regime and atmospheric CO2projections on soil carbon dynamics were quantified by running simulations using climate projections from 2 global circulation models, 3 fossil fuel emission scenarios and 3 alternative fire management scenarios.
During the historical period [1950-2009], soil carbon stocks increased by 4.7 TgC/yr in Alaska. Soil carbon stocks decreased in boreal Alaska due to substantial fire activity in the early 2000’s. This loss was offset by carbon accumulation in the arctic. Changes in soil carbon stocks from 2010 to 2099 ranged from 8.9 to 25.6 TgC/yr, depending on the climate projections. Soil carbon accumulation was slower in lowlands than in uplands and slower in the boreal than in the arctic regions because of the negative effect of fire activity on soil carbon stocks. Tundra ecosystems were more vulnerable to carbon loss from fire than forest ecosystems because of a lower productivity. As a result, the increase in fire frequency in Western Alaska induced a net soil carbon loss for half of the future climate projections.
Overall, these results have implications for land management strategies and illustrate the importance of taking into account permafrost dynamics and disturbance regimes in assessing responses of soil carbon in high latitude ecosystems.

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