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

Abstract

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.

Methods

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.

Results

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.

Conclusions

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

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Correspondence to Nigel Roulet.

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Responsible Editor: Hans Lambers.

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Figure 1 Aboveground biomass composition of plant functional types in Palsa and WL. (PDF 148 kb)

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Table 1 Characteristics of incubated organic matter. (PDF 81 kb)

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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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Wang, Z., Roulet, N. Comparison of plant litter and peat decomposition changes with permafrost thaw in a subarctic peatland. Plant Soil 417, 197–216 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11104-017-3252-7

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Keywords

  • Decomposition
  • CO2
  • CH4
  • DOC production
  • Litter
  • Peat
  • Permafrost thaw
  • Subarctic peatland