Carbon cycling in high latitude ecosystems, in Modeling the Earth System, Proceedings of 1990 OIES Global Change Institute

The carbon-rich soils and peatlands of high-latitude ecosystems could substantially influence atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and CH4 in a changing climate. Currently, cold, often waterlogged conditions retard decomposition, and release of carbon back to the atmosphere may be further slowed by physical protection of organic matter in permafrost. As a result, many northern ecosystems accumulate carbon over time (Billings et al., 1982; Poole and Miller, 1982), and although such rates of accumulation are low, thousands of years of development have left Arctic ecosystems with an extremely high soil carbon content; Schlesinger’s (1984) average value of 20.4 kg C/m(sup 2) leads to a global estimate of 163 x 10(exp 15) g C. All GCM simulations of a doubled CO2 climate predict the greatest warming to occur in the polar regions (Dickinson, 1986; Mitchell, 1989). Given the extensive northern carbon pools and the strong sensitivity of decomposition processes to temperature, even a slight warming of the soil could dramatically alter the carbon balance of Arctic ecosystems. If warming accelerates rates of decomposition more than rates of primary production, a sizeable additional accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere could occur. Furthermore, CH4 produced in anaerobic soils and peatlands of the Arctic already composes a good percentage of the global efflux (Cicerone and Oremlund, 1988); if northern soils become warmer and wetter as a whole, CH4 emissions could dramatically rise. A robust understanding of the primary controls of carbon fluxes in Arctic ecosystems is critical. As a framework for a systematic examination of these controls, we discussed a conceptual model of regional-scale Arctic carbon turnover, including CH4 production, and based upon the Century soil organic matter model.