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Environmental Research Letters









As the permafrost region warms, its large organic carbon pool will be increasingly vulnerable to decomposition, combustion, and hydrologic export. Models predict that some portion of this release will be offset by increased production of Arctic and boreal biomass; however, the lack of robust estimates of net carbon balance increases the risk of further overshooting international emissions targets. Precise empirical or model-based assessments of the critical factors driving carbon balance are unlikely in the near future, so to address this gap, we present estimates from 98 permafrost-region experts of the response of biomass, wildfire, and hydrologic carbon flux to climate change. Results suggest that contrary to model projections, total permafrost-region biomass could decrease due to water stress and disturbance, factors that are not adequately incorporated in current models. Assessments indicate that end-of-the-century organic carbon release from Arctic rivers and collapsing coastlines could increase by 75% while carbon loss via burning could increase four-fold. Experts identified water balance, shifts in vegetation community, and permafrost degradation as the key sources of uncertainty in predicting future system response. In combination with previous findings, results suggest the permafrost region will become a carbon source to the atmosphere by 2100 regardless of warming scenario but that 65%–85% of permafrost carbon release can still be avoided if human emissions are actively reduced.


Benjamin W Abbott1,2, Jeremy B Jones2, Edward A G Schuur3, F Stuart Chapin III2, William B Bowden4, M Syndonia Bret-Harte2, Howard E Epstein5, Michael D Flannigan6, Tamara K Harms2, Teresa N Hollingsworth7, Michelle C Mack3, A David McGuire8, Susan M Natali9, Adrian V Rocha10,Suzanne E Tank11, Merritt R Turetsky12, Jorien E Vonk13, Kimberly P Wickland14, George R Aiken14,Heather D Alexander15, Rainer M W Amon16, Brian W Benscoter17, Yves Bergeron18, Kevin Bishop19,20,Olivier Blarquez21, Ben Bond-Lamberty22, Amy L Breen23, Ishi Buffam24, Yihua Cai25,Christopher Carcaillet26, Sean K Carey27, Jing M Chen28, Han Y H Chen29, Torben R Christensen30,31,Lee W Cooper32, J Hans C Cornelissen33, William J de Groot34, Thomas H DeLuca35, Ellen Dorrepaal36,Ned Fetcher37, Jacques C Finlay38, Bruce C Forbes39, Nancy H F French40, Sylvie Gauthier41,Martin P Girardin41, Scott J Goetz9, Johann G Goldammer42, Laura Gough43, Paul Grogan44,Laodong Guo45, Philip E Higuera46, Larry Hinzman47, Feng Sheng Hu48, Gustaf Hugelius49,Elchin E Jafarov50, Randi Jandt51, Jill F Johnstone52, Jan Karlsson36, Eric S Kasischke53, Gerhard Kattner54,Ryan Kelly55, Frida Keuper36,56, George W Kling57, Pirkko Kortelainen58, Jari Kouki59, Peter Kuhry60,Hjalmar Laudon61, Isabelle Laurion62, Robie W Macdonald63, Paul J Mann64, Pertti J Martikainen65,James W McClelland66, Ulf Molau67, Steven F Oberbauer68, David Olefeldt69, David Paré41,Marc-André Parisien70, Serge Payette71, Changhui Peng72,73, Oleg S Pokrovsky74,75, Edward B Rastetter76,Peter A Raymond77, Martha K Raynolds78, Guillermo Rein79, James F Reynolds80,81, Martin Robards82,Brendan M Rogers9, Christina Schädel3, Kevin Schaefer83, Inger K Schmidt84, Anatoly Shvidenko85,86,Jasper Sky87, Robert G M Spencer88, Gregory Starr89, Robert G Striegl14, Roman Teisserenc90,Lars J Tranvik91, Tarmo Virtanen92, Jeffrey M Welker93 and Sergei Zimov94

1 Université de Rennes 1, OSUR, CNRS, UMR 6553 ECOBIO, France 2 Institute of Arctic Biology and Department of Biology & Wildlife, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA 3 Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, Northern Arizona University, USA 4 The Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont, USA 5 Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia, USA 6 Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Canada 7 USDA Forest Service, PNW Research Station, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA 8 US Geological Survey, Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA 9 Woods Hole Research Center, USA 10 Department of Biological Sciences and the Environmental Change Initiative, University of Notre Dame, USA 11 Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Canada 12 Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph, Canada 13 Department of Earth Sciences, VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands 14 US Geological Survey, National Research Program, Boulder, CO, USA 15 Mississippi State University, Forest and Wildlife Research Center, MS 39762, USA 16 Texas A&M University at Galveston, USA 17 Florida Atlantic University, USA 18 Forest Research Institute, Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Canada 19 Department of Earth Sciences, Uppsala University, Sweden 20 Department of Aquatic Sciences and Assessment, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden 21 Département de Géographie, Université de Montréal, Canada 22 Pacific Northwest National Lab, USA 23 Scenarios Network for Alaska & Arctic Planning, International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA 24 University of Cincinnati, USA 25 State Key Laboratory of Marine Environmental Science, Xiamen University, People’s Republic of China 26 Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, UMR5023 CNRS Lyon 1, France 27 McMaster University, Canada 28 University of Toronto, Canada 29 Faculty of Natural Resources Management, Lakehead University, Canada 30 Lund University, Arctic Research Centre, Sweden 31 Aarhus University, Denmark 32 University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, USA 33 Systems Ecology, VU University, The Netherlands 34 Canadian Forest Service, Natural Resources Canada, Canada 35 School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington, USA 36 Climate Impacts Research Centre, Department of Ecology and Environmental Science, Umeå University, Sweden 37 Institute for Environmental Science and Sustainability, Wilkes University, USA 38 Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota, USA 39 Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Finland 40 Michigan Tech Research Institute, Michigan Technological University, USA 41 Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, Laurentian Forestry Centre, Canada 42 Global Fire Monitoring Center, Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Germany 43 Department of Biological Sciences, Towson University, USA 44 Department of Biology, Queen’s University, Canada 45 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, School of Freshwater Sciences, USA 46 Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences, University of Montana, USA 47 University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA 48 Department of Plant Biology and Department of Geology, University of Illinois, USA 49 Department of Physical Geography, Stockholm University, Sweden 50 Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado Boulder, USA 51 Alaska Fire Science Consortium, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA 52 Biology Department, University of Saskatchewan, Canada 53 Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland, USA 54 Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research, Germany 55 Neptune and Company Inc., USA 56 INRA, AgroImpact UPR1158, France 57 University of Michigan, USA 58 Finnish Environment Institute, Finland 59 School of Forest Sciences, University of Eastern Finland, Finland 60 Department of Physical Geography, Stockholm University, Sweden 61 Department of Forest Ecology and Management, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Umeå, Sweden 62 Centre Eau Terre Environnement, Institut national de la recherche scientifique, Canada 63 Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Institute of Ocean Sciences, Canada 64 Department of Geography, Northumbria University, UK 65 Department of Environmental and Biological Sciences, University of Eastern Finland, Finland 66 University of Texas at Austin, Marine Science Institute, USA 67 Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg, Sweden 68 Department of Biological Sciences, Florida International University, USA 69 Department of Revewable Resources, University of Alberta, Canada 70 Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, Northern Forestry Centre, Canada 71 Centre d’études Nordiques, Université Laval, Canada 72 Center of CEF/ESCER, University of Quebec at Montreal, Canada 73 State Key Laboratory of Soil Erosion and Dryland Farming on the Loess Plateau, College of Forestry, Northwest A&F University, People’s Republic of China 74 Georesources and Environment, CNRS, Toulouse, France 75 BIO-GEO-CLIM Laboratory, Tomsk State University, Russia 76 The Ecosystems Center, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, USA 77 Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, USA 78 Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA 79 Department of Mechanical Engineering, Imperial College London, UK 80 School of Life Sciences, Lanzhou University, People’s Republic of China 81 Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, USA 82 Wildlife Conservation Society, Arctic Beringia Program, USA 83 National Snow and Ice Data Center, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder, USA 84 Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen, Denmark 85 International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria 86 Sukachev Institute of Forest, Russia 87 Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Research, UK 88 Department of Earth, Ocean & Atmospheric Science, Florida State University, USA 89 Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alabama, USA 90 ECOLAB, Université de Toulouse, CNRS, INPT, UPS, Toulouse, France 91 Limnology, Department of Ecology and Genetics, Uppsala University, Sweden 92 Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki, Finland 93 University of Alaska Anchorage, USA 94 Northeast Science Station of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia