Plant and Soil

, Volume 417, Issue 1–2, pp 197–216 | Cite as

Comparison of plant litter and peat decomposition changes with permafrost thaw in a subarctic peatland

  • Zheng Wang
  • Nigel Roulet
Regular Article


Background and aims

Organic matter decomposition in response to thawing permafrost has critical implications for carbon release. This study examined how thaw induced plant community and environmental changes influenced litter and peat decomposition in a subarctic peatland.


We conducted laboratory incubations under current site pre-thaw (dry and large oxic peat layer) and thawed (wet and small oxic peat layer) conditions, and mimiced pond thaw conditions (water saturated and anoxic) at 4 and 22 °C. Carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) releases from ground surface plant litter and top 1 m peat samples at permafrost area (Palsa) and wet thawed lawn (WL) were quantified under current site conditions. Dissolved organic carbon (DOC) released from litter was additionally quantified under pond thaw conditions.


Plant litter mass significantly increased from Palsa to WL. Under current site conditions, litter in WL had significantly higher CO2 and CH4 production rates than litter in Palsa. Pond thaw conditions changed litter carbon loss partitioning into lower CO2 but higher DOC and CH4 production, and increased total carbon release. Whole peat decomposition was restricted from Palsa to WL with thaw. Estimated growing season gas carbon loss (CO2 and CH4) in WL was greater than that in Palsa due to significantly increased litter carbon loss after thaw.


Changes in organic matter decomposition, especially litter decomposition, enlarged carbon losses from this subarctic peatland with permafrost thaw.


Decomposition CO2 CH4 DOC production Litter Peat Permafrost thaw Subarctic peatland 



We thank Claude Tremblay, Warwick F. Vincent, Najat Bhiry and Denis Sarrazin and the Centre des e’etudes norique for field support and site access. Mike Dalva provded laboratory and technical assistances, particularly in the preparation of equipment for use in the field. Kristina Disney and Paul Wilson helped to prepare field instruments and assisted with field research. Youngil Kim provided advices of laboratory incubations. Tim Moore made numerous suggestions on data analysis, and interpretations of results. Alexandre Lamarre and Michelle Garneau kindly shared their peat carbon density data in palsa and permafrost thaw areas. ZW received financial assistance from a Ph.D. fellowship by Chinese Scholarship Council, and recruitment and foreign student differential fee scholarships from Department of Geography, McGill University. This research was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery Frontiers grant for ADAPT project (411351), and a NSERC DG grant (RGPIN 153450-12) to NTR.

Supplementary material

11104_2017_3252_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (148 kb)
Online Resource 1 Figure 1 Aboveground biomass composition of plant functional types in Palsa and WL. (PDF 148 kb)
11104_2017_3252_MOESM2_ESM.pdf (81 kb)
Online Resource 2 Table 1 Characteristics of incubated organic matter. (PDF 81 kb)
11104_2017_3252_MOESM3_ESM.pdf (194 kb)
Online Resource 3 Figure 2 Peat temperature variations at 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 (90) cm in WL and Palsa in growing season 2013 and 2014. (PDF 194 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographyMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada
  2. 2.Centre des Études nordique (CEN)Université LavalQuébecCanada

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