Articles | Volume 12, issue 7
Research article
15 Apr 2015
Research article |  | 15 Apr 2015

Organic-matter quality of deep permafrost carbon – a study from Arctic Siberia

J. Strauss, L. Schirrmeister, K. Mangelsdorf, L. Eichhorn, S. Wetterich, and U. Herzschuh

Abstract. The organic-carbon (OC) pool accumulated in Arctic permafrost (perennially frozen ground) equals the carbon stored in the modern atmosphere. To give an idea of how Yedoma region permafrost could respond under future climatic warming, we conducted a study to quantify the organic-matter quality (here defined as the intrinsic potential to be further transformed, decomposed, and mineralized) of late Pleistocene (Yedoma) and Holocene (thermokarst) deposits on the Buor-Khaya Peninsula, northeast Siberia. The objective of this study was to develop a stratigraphic classified organic-matter quality characterization. For this purpose the degree of organic-matter decomposition was estimated by using a multiproxy approach. We applied sedimentological (grain-size analyses, bulk density, ice content) and geochemical parameters (total OC, stable carbon isotopes (δ13C), total organic carbon : nitrogen (C / N) ratios) as well as lipid biomarkers (n-alkanes, n-fatty acids, hopanes, triterpenoids, and biomarker indices, i.e., average chain length, carbon preference index (CPI), and higher-plant fatty-acid index (HPFA)). Our results show that the Yedoma and thermokarst organic-matter qualities for further decomposition exhibit no obvious degradation–depth trend. Relatively, the C / N and δ13C values and the HPFA index show a significantly better preservation of the organic matter stored in thermokarst deposits compared to Yedoma deposits. The CPI data suggest less degradation of the organic matter from both deposits, with a higher value for Yedoma organic matter. As the interquartile ranges of the proxies mostly overlap, we interpret this as indicating comparable quality for further decomposition for both kinds of deposits with likely better thermokarst organic-matter quality. Supported by principal component analyses, the sediment parameters and quality proxies of Yedoma and thermokarst deposits could not be unambiguously separated from each other. This revealed that the organic-matter vulnerability is heterogeneous and depends on different decomposition trajectories and the previous decomposition and preservation history. Elucidating this was one of the major new contributions of our multiproxy study. With the addition of biomarker data, it was possible to show that permafrost organic-matter degradation likely occurs via a combination of (uncompleted) degradation cycles or a cascade of degradation steps rather than as a linear function of age or sediment facies. We conclude that the amount of organic matter in the studied sediments is high for mineral soils and of good quality and therefore susceptible to future decomposition. The lack of depth trends shows that permafrost acts like a giant freezer, preserving the constant quality of ancient organic matter. When undecomposed Yedoma organic matter is mobilized via thermokarst processes, the fate of this carbon depends largely on the environmental conditions; the carbon could be preserved in an undecomposed state till refreezing occurs. If modern input has occurred, thermokarst organic matter could be of a better quality for future microbial decomposition than that found in Yedoma deposits.

Short summary
Climatic warming is affecting permafrost, including decomposition of organic matter (OM). However, quantitative data for the quality of OM and its availability for decomposition is limited. We analyzed the quality of OM in late Pleistocene (Yedoma) and Holocene (thermokarst) deposits. A lack of depth trends reveals a constant quality of OM showing that permafrost acts like a freezer, preserving OM quality. This OM will be susceptible to decomposition under climatic warming.
Final-revised paper