11 Jun 2024
 | 11 Jun 2024
Status: this preprint is open for discussion.

Model-based analysis of solute transport and potential carbon mineralization in a permafrost catchment under seasonal variability and climate change

Alexandra Hamm, Erik Schytt Mannerfelt, Aaron A. Mohammed, Scott L. Painter, Ethan T. Coon, and Andrew Frampton

Abstract. Permafrost carbon, stored in frozen organic matter across vast Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, represents a substantial and increasingly vulnerable carbon reservoir. As global temperatures rise, the accelerated thawing of permafrost releases greenhouse gases, exacerbating climate change. However, freshly thawed permafrost carbon may also experience lateral transport by groundwater flow to surface water recipients such as rivers and lakes, increasing the terrestrial-to-aquatic transfer of permafrost carbon. The mobilization and subsurface transport mechanisms are poorly understood and not accounted for in global climate models, leading to high uncertainties in the predictions of the permafrost carbon feedback. Here, we analyze of solute transport in the form of a non-reactive tracer representing dissolved organic carbon (DOC) using a physics-based numerical model with the objective to study governing cryotic and hydrodynamic transport mechanisms relevant for warming permafrost regions. We first analyze transport times for DOC pools at different locations within the active layer under present-day climatic conditions and proceed to study susceptibility for deeper ancient carbon release in the upper permafrost due to thaw under different warming scenarios. Results suggest that DOC in the active layer near the permafrost table experiences rapid lateral transport upon thaw due to saturated conditions and lateral flow, while DOC close to the ground surface experiences slower transport due flow in unsaturated soil. Deeper permafrost carbon release exhibits vastly different transport behaviors depending on warming and thaw rate. Gradual warming leads to small fractions of DOC being mobilized every year, while the majority moves vertically through percolation and cryosuction. Abrupt thaw resulting from a single very warm year leads to faster lateral transport times, similar to active layer DOC released in saturated conditions. Lastly, we analyze the potential susceptibility of DOC to mineralization to CO2 prior to export due to soil moisture and temperature conditions. We find that high liquid saturation during transport coincides with very low mineralization rates and potentially inhibits mineralization into greenhouse gases before export. Overall, the results highlight the importance of subsurface hydrologic and thermal conditions on the retention and lateral export of permafrost carbon by subsurface flow.

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Alexandra Hamm, Erik Schytt Mannerfelt, Aaron A. Mohammed, Scott L. Painter, Ethan T. Coon, and Andrew Frampton

Status: open (until 23 Jul 2024)

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Alexandra Hamm, Erik Schytt Mannerfelt, Aaron A. Mohammed, Scott L. Painter, Ethan T. Coon, and Andrew Frampton
Alexandra Hamm, Erik Schytt Mannerfelt, Aaron A. Mohammed, Scott L. Painter, Ethan T. Coon, and Andrew Frampton


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Short summary
The fate of thawing permafrost carbon is essential to our understanding of the permafrost-climate feedback and projections of future climate. Here, we modeled the transport of carbon in the groundwater within the active layer. We find that carbon transport velocities and potential microbial mineralization rates are strongly dependent on liquid saturation in the seasonally thawed active layer. In a warming climate, the rate at which permafrost thaws determines how fast carbon can be transported.