Northern Peatland Shifts Under Changing Climate and Their Impact on Permafrost

Monday, 15 December 2014
Yuri Shur1, Torre Jorgenson2 and Mikhail Z Kanevskiy1, (1)University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, United States, (2)Alaska Ecoscience, Fairbanks, AK, United States
Formation of peatlands depends primarily on climate and its interactions with hydrology, soil thermal regimes, plant composition, and nutrients. A water balance with precipitation exceeding evaporation is necessary for their formation. The rate of peat accumulation also greatly depends on thermal resources. The prominent impact of the water balance and temperature on peatland formation is evident in the West Siberia Lowland. The rate of peat accumulation steadily increases from arctic tundra to moss tundra, to forest tundra, to northern taiga, and to southern taiga. This increase is a result in increase in air temperature and length of the growing season because all of these zones have water balance favorable for peat formation. Further to south, evaporation prevails over precipitation and peat formation occurs only in isolated areas.

Climate change will redefine geographical distribution of climatic and vegetation zones. It is predicted that in arctic and subarctic regions the difference between precipitation and evaporation will increase and as a result these regions will remain favorable to peat accumulation. With increase of thermal resources, the rate of peat accumulation will also increase. The Alaska Arctic Coastal Plain is of a special interest because it has thousands of shallow lakes, which due to warming climate would shift from open waterbodies to peatlands through shoreline paludification and infilling. The accumulation of organic matter will likely turn open water into shore fens and bogs, and eventually to peat plateaus, as is occurring in many boreal landscapes.

Expected impact on permafrost in arctic and subarctic regions will include rise of the permafrost table, thickening of the ice-rich intermediate layer with ataxitic (suspended) cryostructure, and replacement of frost boils with earth hummocks. In the contemporary continuous permafrost zone, permafrost formed as climate-driven will be transformed into climate-driven ecosystem protected. Sphagnum mosses, which grow better under warm climates, is a dominant factor in this transformation. Terrestrialization of numerous shallow lakes on the Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska will lower permafrost temperatures beneath them and in surrounding areas.