CM – Scientists are using novel methods to study the movement of carbon in northern terrestrial ecosystems


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August 10, 2021

from the University of Helsinki

A new study published in Global Change Biology uses novel methodological advances to study the movement of carbon dioxide (CO2) into and out of northern terrestrial ecosystems and the patterns of CO2 uptake and release in different regions to identify. With northern permafrost regions storing roughly half of the global soil organic carbon, which is susceptible to decomposition and emission to the atmosphere as global warming occurs, a better understanding of carbon variability at high latitudes is essential to tracking the global carbon budget and mitigating the effects of climate change.

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The study took an unprecedented approach to assessing carbon fluxes in boreal and tundra regions by synthesizing data from 148 locations using a combination of commonly used statistical and machine learning models, as well as remote sensing and geospatial data to identify the patterns and driving forces analyze the CO2 ecosystem. Sinks « (net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere) and CO2 » sources « (net release of CO2 into the atmosphere). The results show that Fennoscandia, European Russia, southern Canada and southern Siberia were all found to be annual carbon dioxide sinks, while northern and central Siberia, northern and central Alaska, and northern Canada have all been found as annual sources, reflecting nuances and variability not only between regions but within as well.On average, both boreal and tundra biomes continue to act as carbon sinks, though The tundra turned out to be a less effective sink than some previous studies have shown – a finding that could indicate a potential shift in carbon movement through our ecosystems, consequences of climate change and the thawing of permafrost.

« In large-scale synthesis and Modeling the carbon dioxide flow remains a lot of uncertainty, but the fact that the boreal regio n being a strong carbon sink while the tundra biome is closer to carbon neutral gives us valuable insight into the carbon footprint in the region, « said Woodwell climate scientist, former Ph.D. Student at Helsinki University and lead author of the report, Dr. Anna Virkkala. « It tells us that the carbon uptake of plants on the tundra is barely keeping pace with the carbon dioxide emissions associated with, for example, the thawing of permafrost, and we need to continue to watch how those carbon budgets change over the next few decades. »

« As the climate warms, we will see the permafrost thawing along with more wildfires and other disturbances, » said Woodwell climate scientist and co-author of the report, Dr. Brendan Rogers. “The data from this work shows that undisturbed boreal forests and boreal wetlands currently continue to store carbon dioxide that is emitted into the atmosphere every year by human activities, which in the past served as carbon sinks to become carbon sources. Just because a region now serves as a sink doesn’t mean it will serve as one in 30 years. « 

 » The methods we developed for this study are an important step towards better predicting carbon dioxide fluxes « said Miska Luoto, Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Helsinki. » However, due to large ecological and geographical differences, it remains a challenge to account for variability due to factors such as fire and logging – which serve to reduce the net carbon sink and would likely have an impact on the study results. While our methodologies form the basis, it will be important to continue our research to fully and effectively understand the movement of carbon in the region and its impact on climate change. « 

The study conducted by Dr. Virkkala, Dr. Rogers, Dr. Sue Natali, Dr. Watts and Potter of Woodwell Climate, co-authored with 44 scientists from institutions around the world, takes an important step towards better understanding regional and global carbon scales and the accuracy and effectiveness of the tools and methods available to measure them. To build on this work and support future studies, Woodwell’s team plans to publish an updated carbon dioxide flux database with improved geographic and seasonal coverage to develop improved models of carbon fluxes and to monitor key changes and their effects at high latitudes.

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