Could 4 degrees warming change Arctic tundra from carbon sink to carbon source?
Abstract:We have set up a controlled, active warming experiment in permafrost tundra on the North Slope of Alaska. The aim of this micro-warming experiment is to investigate the direct effect of soil warming on microbial decomposition of soil organic matter. We are testing the feasibility of small, short-term, in situ warming that can be run off batteries for distributed deployment and that preserves plant-soil relations and natural variability in wind, temperature, and precipitation. Based on preliminary results, the approach looks promising. One resistance heater cable per plot (25 cm diameter plots) was inserted vertically to 50 cm, spanning the full active layer (maximum thaw depth was 40 cm in 2014). Heaters were turned on August 1, 2015, and heated plots reached the 4ºC warming target within 1-3 days. We are measuring soil microclimate, thaw depth, CO2 and CH4 fluxes, and 14CO2, and microbial composition, as part of the DOE Next Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE-Arctic).
Ecosystem respiration increased immediately in the heated plots, and net ecosystem exchange under clear chambers changed from net uptake to net CO2 source in two of the four plots. CH4 flux shifted toward reduced net emissions or greater net uptake in all plots. These rapid responses demonstrate direct changes in decomposition without complications from microbial acclimation, altered community structure or changes in substrate availability. However, future Arctic tundra carbon balance will depend on both short term and long term microbial responses, as well as the links between warming, decomposition, nitrogen mineralization, and plant growth. Thus, we envision that distributed micro-warming plots could be combined with new approaches to aboveground passive warming being developed in NGEE, gradient studies, and modeling.