Can Plant Community Turnover Mitigate Permafrost Thaw Feedbacks to the Climate System?

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Moira Hough1, AJ Garnello1, Daniel Finnell2, Michael W Palace3, Virginia Isabel Rich1 and Scott R Saleska1, (1)University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, United States, (2)University of New Hampshire Main Campus, Durham, NH, United States, (3)Complex System Research Center, Durham, NH, United States
In many parts of the Arctic, permafrost thaw due to rising temperatures results in the conversion of dry tundra to wetland bog and fen ecosystems. Such increases in anaerobic environments may have substantial feedbacks to the rate of climate change through the increased production of CH4, a greenhouse gas an order of magnitude more potent than the CO2 respired from aerobic soils. However, the total emission rates of CH4 and CO2 alone cannot predict the magnitude of feedback to the climate system since this will also depend on the ecosystem’s overall carbon balance and the source of carbon (new vs old) producing the emissions. Thus, building detailed carbon budgets is essential to understanding the potential climate feedbacks of habitat changes due to permafrost thaw. We studied above-ground plant biomass and its carbon content in order to calculate the inputs of new carbon to the soil along a permafrost thaw gradient with previously well-quantified CO2 and CH4 fluxes in northern Sweden. In order to account for within-season plant community turnover, we monitored plant percent cover over the course of a growing season in three communities: areas underlain by permafrost dominated by E. vaginatum, and E. nigrum, recently thawed sphagnum dominated areas, and more established E. angustifolium dominated fen communities. Additionally, we calculated end of season biomass and percent carbon for each species and compared our findings to previously published community composition assessments from 1972/1973 and 2000. We tied our ground-based measurements to aerial remote sensing images to extrapolate biomass and percent carbon across the mire based on community type. These results allow us to calculate total carbon inputs to the mire from new above-ground biomass. By coupling these measurements with flux rates from each habitat we will be able to assess the degree to which increased biomass production might offset the increase in CH4 released from soils as a result of plant community turnover after permafrost thaw.