Northern peatlands, typical for subarctic Scandinavia and Russia, contain one third of the world’s soil organic carbon. How much extra carbon these soils will release to the atmosphere, through accelerated respiration in a warmer climate, has been pretty much guesswork. Data from an eight-year in situ experiment carried out in Sweden now suggest that even modest warming will release enough extra carbon to effectively equalize the European Union’s emissions reductions achieved under the Kyoto Protocol.
Ellen Dorrepaal and her colleagues studied ecosystem response to climate warming at a test site near the Swedish Abisko scientific research station, some 200 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle. In a paper in Nature today (subscription required) they report that warming accelerated the respiration of carbon in peat overlaying the permafrost by almost 70 % – much more than previously thought. Here’s an editor’s summary.
Extrapolated to the total northern peatland area, the results suggest that climate warming of 1 degree Celsius over the next decade might lead to a global increase in respiration of 38-100 million tonnes of carbon per year. For comparison: The EU’s Kyoto target is to reduce emissions by 92 million tonnes of carbon per year.
The researchers stress that the effect is likely to last: “In contrast to long-term studies in forest, meadow and tundra ecosystems, the warming effect did not decline towards the eighth year of the study,” they write.
The net effect of warming on northern carbon reservoirs includes possible gains from increased plant growth. But in Arctic ecosystems dominated by peat and moss, there are too few productive woody shrubs growing to offset the warming effect on soils.
Image: Subarctic peatland in Abisko, North Sweden where the consequences for CO2-respiration rates were investigated. Credit: Ellen Dorrepaal