• Controls on ecosystem respiration of carbon dioxide across a boreal wetland gradient in Interior Alaska

      McConnell, Nicole A.; McGuire, A. David; Turetsky, Merritt R.; Harden, Jennifer W. (2012-08)
      Permafrost and organic soil layers are common to most wetlands in interior Alaska, where wetlands have functioned as important long-term soil carbon sinks. Boreal wetlands are diverse in both vegetation and nutrient cycling, ranging from nutrient-poor bogs to nutrient- and vascular-rich fens. The goals of my study were to quantify growing season ecosystem respiration (ER) along a gradient of vegetation and permafrost in a boreal wetland complex, and to evaluate the main abiotic and biotic variables that regulate CO₂ release from boreal soils. Highest ER and root respiration were observed at a sedge/forb community and lowest ER and root respiration were observed at a neighboring rich fen community, even though the two fens had similar estimates of root biomass and vascular green area. Root respiration also contributed approximately 40% to ER at both fens. These results support the conclusion that high soil moisture and low redox potential may be limiting both heterotrophic and autotrophic respiration at the rich fen. This study suggests that interactions among soil environmental variables are important drivers of ER. Also, vegetation and its response to soil environment determines contributions from aboveground (leaves and shoots) and belowground (roots and moss) components, which vary among wetland gradient communities.
    • The effects of permafrost degradation on soil carbon dynamics in Alaska's boreal region

      O'Donnell, Jonathan A. (2010-12)
      High-latitude regions store large quantities of organic carbon (C) in permafrost soils and peatlands, accounting for nearly half of the global belowground C pool. Projected climate warming over the next century will likely drive widespread thawing of near-surface permafrost and mobilization of soil C from deep soil horizons. However, the processes controlling soil C accumulation and loss following permafrost thaw are not well understood. To improve our understanding of these processes, I examined the effects of permafrost thaw on soil C dynamics in forested upland and peatland ecosystems of Alaska's boreal region. In upland forests, soil C accumulation and loss was governed by the complex interaction of wildfire and permafrost. Fluctuations in active layer depth across stand age and fire cycles determined the proportion of soil C in frozen or unfrozen soil, and in turn, the vulnerability of soil C to decomposition. Under present-day climate conditions, the presence of near-surface permafrost aids C stabilization through the upward movement of the permafrost table with post-fire ecosystem recovery. However, sensitivity analyses suggest that projected increases in air temperature and fire severity will accelerate permafrost thaw and soil C loss from deep mineral horizons. In the lowlands, permafrost thaw and collapse-scar bog formation resulted in the dramatic redistribution of soil water, modifying soil thermal and C dynamics. Water impoundment in collapse-scar bogs enhanced soil C accumulation in shallow peat horizons, while allowing for high rates of soil C loss from deep inundated peat horizons. Accumulation rates at the surface were not sufficient to balance deep C losses, resulting in a net loss of 26 g C m⁻² y⁻¹ from the entire peat column during the 3000 years following thaw. Findings from these studies highlight the vulnerability of soil C in Alaska's boreal region to future climate warming and permafrost thaw. As a result, permafrost thaw and soil C release from boreal soils to the atmosphere should function as a positive feedback to the climate system.