Quantifying uncertainties of permafrost carbon–climate feedbacks
Abstract. The land surface models JULES (Joint UK Land Environment Simulator, two versions) and ORCHIDEE-MICT (Organizing Carbon and Hydrology in Dynamic Ecosystems), each with a revised representation of permafrost carbon, were coupled to the Integrated Model Of Global Effects of climatic aNomalies (IMOGEN) intermediate-complexity climate and ocean carbon uptake model. IMOGEN calculates atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and local monthly surface climate for a given emission scenario with the land–atmosphere CO2 flux exchange from either JULES or ORCHIDEE-MICT. These simulations include feedbacks associated with permafrost carbon changes in a warming world. Both IMOGEN–JULES and IMOGEN–ORCHIDEE-MICT were forced by historical and three alternative future-CO2-emission scenarios. Those simulations were performed for different climate sensitivities and regional climate change patterns based on 22 different Earth system models (ESMs) used for CMIP3 (phase 3 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project), allowing us to explore climate uncertainties in the context of permafrost carbon–climate feedbacks. Three future emission scenarios consistent with three representative concentration pathways were used: RCP2.6, RCP4.5 and RCP8.5. Paired simulations with and without frozen carbon processes were required to quantify the impact of the permafrost carbon feedback on climate change. The additional warming from the permafrost carbon feedback is between 0.2 and 12 % of the change in the global mean temperature (ΔT) by the year 2100 and 0.5 and 17 % of ΔT by 2300, with these ranges reflecting differences in land surface models, climate models and emissions pathway. As a percentage of ΔT, the permafrost carbon feedback has a greater impact on the low-emissions scenario (RCP2.6) than on the higher-emissions scenarios, suggesting that permafrost carbon should be taken into account when evaluating scenarios of heavy mitigation and stabilization. Structural differences between the land surface models (particularly the representation of the soil carbon decomposition) are found to be a larger source of uncertainties than differences in the climate response. Inertia in the permafrost carbon system means that the permafrost carbon response depends on the temporal trajectory of warming as well as the absolute amount of warming. We propose a new policy-relevant metric – the frozen carbon residence time (FCRt) in years – that can be derived from these complex land surface models and used to quantify the permafrost carbon response given any pathway of global temperature change.