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Keywords:

  • carbon sequestration;
  • climate change;
  • growing season;
  • permafrost;
  • productivity;
  • respiration;
  • snow cover;
  • terrestrial ecosystem model

Abstract

In terrestrial high-latitude regions, observations indicate recent changes in snow cover, permafrost, and soil freeze–thaw transitions due to climate change. These modifications may result in temporal shifts in the growing season and the associated rates of terrestrial productivity. Changes in productivity will influence the ability of these ecosystems to sequester atmospheric CO2. We use the terrestrial ecosystem model (TEM), which simulates the soil thermal regime, in addition to terrestrial carbon (C), nitrogen and water dynamics, to explore these issues over the years 1960–2100 in extratropical regions (30–90°N). Our model simulations show decreases in snow cover and permafrost stability from 1960 to 2100. Decreases in snow cover agree well with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite observations collected between the years 1972 and 2000, with Pearson rank correlation coefficients between 0.58 and 0.65. Model analyses also indicate a trend towards an earlier thaw date of frozen soils and the onset of the growing season in the spring by approximately 2–4 days from 1988 to 2000. Between 1988 and 2000, satellite records yield a slightly stronger trend in thaw and the onset of the growing season, averaging between 5 and 8 days earlier. In both, the TEM simulations and satellite records, trends in day of freeze in the autumn are weaker, such that overall increases in growing season length are due primarily to earlier thaw. Although regions with the longest snow cover duration displayed the greatest increase in growing season length, these regions maintained smaller increases in productivity and heterotrophic respiration than those regions with shorter duration of snow cover and less of an increase in growing season length. Concurrent with increases in growing season length, we found a reduction in soil C and increases in vegetation C, with greatest losses of soil C occurring in those areas with more vegetation, but simulations also suggest that this trend could reverse in the future. Our results reveal noteworthy changes in snow, permafrost, growing season length, productivity, and net C uptake, indicating that prediction of terrestrial C dynamics from one decade to the next will require that large-scale models adequately take into account the corresponding changes in soil thermal regimes.