, Volume 128, Issue 3, pp 397–415 | Cite as

Redistribution of soil organic matter by permafrost disturbance in the Canadian High Arctic

  • David M. Grewer
  • Melissa J. Lafrenière
  • Scott F. Lamoureux
  • Myrna J. SimpsonEmail author


With increased warming in the Arctic, permafrost thaw may induce localized physical disturbance of slopes. These disturbances, referred to as active layer detachments (ALDs), redistribute soil across the landscape, potentially releasing previously unavailable carbon (C). In 2007–2008, widespread ALD activity was reported at the Cape Bounty Arctic Watershed Observatory in Nunavut, Canada. Our study investigated organic matter (OM) composition in soil profiles from ALD-impacted and undisturbed areas. Solid-state 13C nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and solvent-extractable biomarkers were used to characterize soil OM. Throughout the disturbed upslope profile, where surface soils and vegetation had been removed, NMR revealed low O-alkyl C content and biomarker analysis revealed low concentrations of solvent-extractable compounds suggesting enhanced erosion of labile-rich OM by the ALD. In the disturbed downslope region, vegetation remained intact but displaced material from upslope produced lateral compression ridges at the surface. High O-alkyl content in the surface horizon was consistent with enrichment of carbohydrates and peptides, but low concentrations of labile biomarkers (i.e., sugars) suggested the presence of relatively unaltered labile-rich OM. Decreased O-alkyl content and biomarker concentrations below the surface contrasted with the undisturbed profile and may indicate the loss of well-established pre-ALD surface drainage with compression ridge formation. However, pre-ALD profile composition remains unknown and the observed decreases may result from nominal pre-ALD OM inputs. These results are the first to establish OM composition in ALD-impacted soil profiles, suggesting reallocation of permafrost-derived soil C to areas where degradation or erosion may contribute to increased C losses from disturbed Arctic soils.


Cape Bounty Soil organic matter characterization Active layer detachments Solvent extractable biomarkers Solid-state 13C nuclear magnetic resonance 



We sincerely thank two anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback on an earlier version of this manuscript. We also thank ArcticNet NCE and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Frontiers Arctic Development and Adaptation to Permafrost in Transition (ADAPT) grant for supporting this research. D. M. Grewer thanks NSERC for support via the NSERC Postgraduate Scholarship. Polar Continental Shelf Programme provided logistics for field sampling.

Supplementary material

10533_2016_215_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (1.1 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 1124 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • David M. Grewer
    • 1
    • 2
  • Melissa J. Lafrenière
    • 3
  • Scott F. Lamoureux
    • 3
  • Myrna J. Simpson
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of ChemistryUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Department of Physical and Environmental SciencesUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  3. 3.Department of Geography and PlanningQueen’s UniversityKingstonCanada

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