Soil processes in high-latitude regions during winter are important contributors to global carbon circulation, but our understanding of the mechanisms controlling these processes is poor and observed temperature response coefficients of CO2 production in frozen soils deviate markedly from thermodynamically predicted responses (sometimes by several orders of magnitude). We investigated the temperature response of CO2 production in 23 unfrozen and frozen surface soil samples from various types of boreal forests and peatland ecosystems and also measured changes in water content in them after freezing. We demonstrate that deviations in temperature responses at subzero temperatures primarily emanates from water deficiency caused by freezing of the soil water, and that the amount of unfrozen water is mainly determined by the quality of the soil organic matter, which is linked to the vegetation cover. Factoring out the contribution of water limitation to the CO2 temperature responses yields response coefficients that agree well with expectations based on thermodynamic theory concerning biochemical temperature responses. This partitioning between a pure temperature response and the effect of water availability on the response of soil CO2 production at low temperatures is crucial for a thorough understanding of low-temperature soil processes and for accurate predictions of C-balances in northern terrestrial ecosystems.