The climatic changes on earth may have serious implications for the carbon (C) cycle in the terrestrial Arctic throughout the 21st century. Arctic vegetation takes up carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere producing biomass. In a cold and often moist soil environment, dead organic matter is preferentially preserved as soil organic matter (SOM) due to the inhibition of decomposition processes. However, viable soil microbes exhale huge amounts of CO2 and methane (CH4) annually. Hence, Arctic ecosystems exhibit annual fluxes of both carbon-based (CO2 and CH4) greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are in an order of magnitude of millions of tons. Rising Arctic temperatures lead to the degradation of much of today's permafrost in the long run. As a result, large quantities of frozen SOM may become available for decomposers, and GHGs that are entrapped in permafrost may be released. At the same time, warming tends to stimulate the growth, development, and reproduction of many Arctic plants, at least transiently. The present northward migration of boreal shrubs and trees into southern tundra areas may be amplified by that, increasing the ecosystems' gross primary production and, thus, their C sequestration. On the other hand, rising temperatures boost SOM decomposition and microbial respiration rates. In general, soil temperature and soil moisture are key environmental variables to control the intensity of aerobic and anaerobic respiration by microbes, and autotrophic respiration by plants.
On the basis of published data on Arctic CO2 and CH4 fluxes, the calculations on the terrestrial C-based Arctic GHG balance made in this review reveal a current annual GHG exchange that ranges between a weak storage of ≤ 225 Tg CO2 equivalent (eq.) y–1 and a huge release of ≤ 1990 Tg CO2 eq. y–1. Hence, the Arctic GHG balance does apparently already contribute positively to the climatic changes at present. Regarding the future, the relative development of the uptake and release of CO2 and CH4 by northern ecosystems is fundamental to the overall GHG status of the Arctic under scenarios of continued climate change.