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Biogeochemistry of organic carbon, CO2, CH4, and trace elements in thermokarst water bodies in discontinuous permafrost zones of Western Siberia

Shirokova, L. S., Pokrovsky, O. S., Kirpotin, S. N., Desmukh, C., Pokrovsky, B. G., Audry, S., Viers, J.
Biogeochemistry 2013 v.113 no.1-3 pp. 573-593
aquatic environment, atmosphere, bacterioplankton, biodegradation, body water, bogs, carbon, carbon dioxide, chemical concentration, colloids, databases, dissolved organic carbon, drainage, ecosystems, forests, greenhouse gas emissions, heterotrophs, lakes, metals, methane, mineralization, oxygen consumption, permafrost, ponds, prediction, primary productivity, soil organic matter, subsidence, surface area, surface water, thawing, trace elements, tundra, water reservoirs, Siberia
Active processes of permafrost thaw in Western Siberia increase the number of soil subsidencies, thermokarst lakes and thaw ponds. In continuous permafrost zones, this process promotes soil carbon mobilisation to water reservoirs, as well as organic matter (OM) biodegradation, which produces a permanent flux of carbon dioxide (CO₂) to the atmosphere. At the same time, the biogeochemical evolution of aquatic ecosystems situated in the transition zone between continuous permafrost and permafrost-free terrain remains poorly known. In order to better understand the biogeochemical processes that occur in thaw ponds and lakes located in discontinuous permafrost zones, we studied ~30 small (1–100,000 m²) shallow (<1 m depth) lakes and ponds formed as a result of permafrost subsidence and thaw of the palsa bog located in the transition zone between the tundra and forest-tundra (central part of Western Siberia). There is a significant increase in dissolved CO₂ and methane (CH₄) concentration with decreasing water body surface area, with the largest supersaturation with respect to atmospheric CO₂ and CH₄ in small (<100 m²) permafrost depressions filled with thaw water. Dissolved organic carbon (DOC), conductivity, and metal concentrations also progressively increase from large lakes to thaw ponds and depressions. As such, small water bodies with surface areas of 1–100 m² that are not accounted for in the existing lake and pond databases may significantly contribute to CO₂ and CH₄ fluxes to the atmosphere, as well as to the stocks of dissolved trace elements and organic carbon. In situ lake water incubation experiments yielded negligible primary productivity but significant oxygen consumption linked to the mineralisation rate of dissolved OM by heterotrophic bacterioplankton, which produce a net CO₂ flux to the atmosphere of 5 ± 2.5 mol C m² year⁻¹. The most significant result of this study, which has long-term consequences on our prediction of aquatic ecosystem development in the course of permafrost degradation is CO₂, CH₄, and DOC concentrations increase with decreasing lake age and size. As a consequence, upon future permafrost thaw, the increase in the number of small water bodies, accompanied by the drainage of large thermokarst lakes to the hydrological network, will likely favour (i) the increase of DOC and colloidal metal stocks in surface aquatic systems, and (ii) the enhancement of CO₂ and CH₄ fluxes from the water surface to the atmosphere. According to a conservative estimation that considers that the total area occupied by water bodies in Western Siberia will not change, this increase in stocks and fluxes could be as high as a factor of ten.