Preferential export of permafrost-derived organic matter as retrogressive thaw slumping intensifies

Lisa Bröder*, Kirsi Keskitalo, Scott Zolkos, Sarah Shakil, Suzanne E. Tank, Steve V. Kokelj, Tommaso Tesi, Bart E. van Dongen, Negar Haghipour, Timothy I. Eglinton, Jorien E. Vonk

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)
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Enhanced warming of the Northern high latitudes has intensified thermokarst processes throughout the permafrost zone. Retrogressive thaw slumps (RTS), where thaw-driven erosion caused by ground ice melt creates terrain disturbances extending over tens of hectares, represent particularly dynamic thermokarst features. Biogeochemical transformation of the mobilized substrate may release CO2 to the atmosphere and impact downstream ecosystems, yet its fate remains unclear. The Peel Plateau in northwestern Canada hosts some of the largest RTS features in the Arctic. Here, thick deposits of Pleistocene-aged glacial tills are overlain by a thinner layer of relatively organic-rich Holocene-aged permafrost that aggraded upward following deeper thaw and soil development during the early Holocene warm period. In this study, we characterize exposed soil layers and the mobilized material by analysing sediment properties and organic matter composition in active layer, Holocene and Pleistocene permafrost, recently thawed debris deposits and fresh deposits of slump outflow from four separate RTS features. We found that organic matter content, radiocarbon age and biomarker concentrations in debris and outflow deposits from all four sites were most similar to permafrost soils, with a lesser influence of the organic-rich active layer. Lipid biomarkers suggested a significant contribution of petrogenic carbon especially in Pleistocene permafrost. Active layer samples contained abundant intrinsically labile macromolecular components (polysaccharides, lignin markers, phenolic and N-containing compounds). All other samples were dominated by degraded organic constituents. Active layer soils, although heterogeneous, also had the highest median grain sizes, whereas debris and runoff deposits consisted of finer mineral grains and were generally more homogeneous, similar to permafrost. We thus infer that both organic matter degradation and hydrodynamic sorting during transport affect the mobilized material. Determining the relative magnitude of these two processes will be crucial to better assess the role of intensifying RTS activity in CO2 release and ecosystem carbon fluxes.
Original languageEnglish
Article number054059
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number5
Early online date10 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - May 2021
Externally publishedYes

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