Vegetation height and other controls of spatial variability in methane emissions from the Arctic coastal tundra at Barrow, Alaska



[1] We conducted measurements of methane (CH4) emission and ecosystem respiration on >200 points across the Arctic coastal tundra near Barrow, Alaska, United States, in July 2007 and August 2008. This site contains broad diversity in tundra microtopography, including polygonal tundra, thaw lakes, and drained lake basins. In 2007, we surveyed CH4 emissions across this landscape, and found that soil water content was the strongest control of methane emission rate, such that emission rates rose exponentially with water content. However, there was considerable residual variation in CH4 emission in the wettest soils (>80% volumetric water content) where CH4 emissions were highest. A statistical analysis of possible soil and plant controls on CH4 emission rates from these wet soils revealed that vegetation height (especially of Carex aquatilis) was the best predictor, with ecosystem respiration and permafrost depth as significant copredictors. To evaluate whether plant height served as a proxy for aboveground plant biomass, or gross primary production, we conducted a survey of CH4 emission rates from wet, Carex-dominated sites in 2008, coincidently measuring these candidate predictors. Surprisingly, vegetation height remained the best predictor of CH4 emission rates, with CH4 emissions rising exponentially with vegetation height. We hypothesize that taller plants have more extensive root systems that both stimulate more methanogenesis and conduct more pore water CH4 to the atmosphere. We anticipate that the magnitude of the climate change–CH4 feedback in the Arctic Coastal Plain will strongly depend on how permafrost thaw alters the ecology of Carex aquatilis.