Biomarker and carbon isotope constraints (d13C, ∆14C) on sources and cycling of particulate organic matter discharged by large Siberian rivers draining permafrost areas

Maria.Winterfeld [ at ]


Circumpolar permafrost soils store about half of the global soil organic carbon pool. These huge amounts of organic matter (OM) could accumulate due to low temperatures and water saturated soil conditions over the course of millennia. Currently most of this OM remains frozen and therefore does not take part in the active carbon cycle, making permafrost soils a globally important carbon sink. Over the last decades mean annual air temperatures in the Arctic increased stronger than the global mean and this trend is projected to continue. As a result the permafrost carbon pool is under climate pressure possibly creating a positive climate feedback due to the thaw-induced release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Arctic warming will lead to increased annual permafrost thaw depths and Arctic river runoff likely resulting in enhanced mobilization and export of old, previously frozen soil-derived OM. Consequently, the great arctic rivers play an important role in global biogeochemical cycles by connecting the large permafrost carbon pool of their hinterlands with the arctic shelf seas and the Arctic Ocean. The first part of this thesis deals with particulate organic matter (POM) from the Lena Delta and adjacent Buor Khaya Bay. The Lena River in central Siberia is one of the major pathways translocating terrestrial OM from its southernmost reaches near Lake Baikal to the coastal zone of the Laptev Sea. The permafrost soils from the Lena catchment area store huge amounts of pre-aged OM, which is expected to be remobilized due to climate warming. To characterize the composition and vegetation sources of OM discharged by the Lena River, the lignin phenol and carbon isotopic composition (δ13C and Δ14C) in total suspended matter (TSM) from surface waters, surface sediments from the Buor Khaya Bay along with soils from the Lena Delta’s first (Holocene) and third terraces (Pleistocene ice complex) were analyzed. The lignin compositions of these samples are consistent with inputs of OM from non-woody angiosperm sources mixed with organic matter derived from woody gymnosperm sources. A simple linear mixing model based on the lignin phenol distributions indicates organic matter in TSM samples from the delta and Buor Khaya Bay surface sediments contain comparable contributions from gymnosperm sources, which are primarily from the taiga forests south of the delta, and angiosperm material typical for tundra vegetation. Considering the small area covered by tundra (~12% of total catchment), the input of tundra-derived OM input is substantial and likely to increase in a warming Arctic. Radiocarbon compositions (Δ14C) of bulk OM in Lena River TSM samples varied from –55 to –391‰, translating into 14C ages of 395 to 3920 years BP. Using δ13C compositions to estimate the fraction of phytoplankton-derived OM and assuming that this material has a modern 14C signature, we inferred the Δ14C compositions of terrigenous OM in TSM exported by the Lena River to range between –190 and –700‰. Such variability in the ages of terrigenous OM (i.e. 1640 to 9720 14C years BP) reflects the heterogeneous composition and residence time of OM in the Lena River catchment soils (Holocene to Pleistocene ages). Lignin phenol and Δ14C compositions of surface sediments from the adjacent Buor Khaya Bay suggest that terrestrial OM deposited there is older and more degraded than materials present in river particles and catchment soils. Stronger diagenetic alteration in Lena Delta TSM and marine sediments relative to soils may reflect degradation of more labile components during permafrost thawing and transport. Despite the high natural heterogeneity in catchment soils, the lignin biomarker compositions and radiocarbon ages of terrestrial OM exported by the Lena River reflect catchment characteristics such as vegetation and soil type. Climate warming related changes in the Lena River catchment may be detectable in changing lignin biomarker composition, diagenetic alteration, and radiocarbon age. The second part of this thesis investigates past permafrost dynamics and the possible permafrost/wetland climate feedback during the last deglaciation and Early Holocene. The Amur hinterland in East Siberia was most likely characterized by extensive permafrost during the last glacial maximum and is today permafrost-free with the exception of small areas in the northern reaches of the catchment. The organic matter flux of the Amur River into its receiving basin, the Okhotsk Sea, was reconstructed for the last 16,000 years in a high-resolution AMS 14C-dated sediment core from the Sakhalin continental margin, based on organic geochemical multi-proxy data and compound-specific radiocarbon dating of n-alkanoic acids. Within the deglacial discharge maximum of organic matter to the Okhotsk Sea, two peaks of organic matter release episodes; the first occurring during the Bølling-Allerød warm phase, and the second, larger one after Termination Ib in the earliest Preboreal could be identified. The results highlight the sensitivity of the Amur drainage basin’s carbon reservoir to rapid deglacial temperature and precipitation changes. It is hypothesized that large amounts of carbon were activated upon deglacial permafrost thawing within this southernmost Siberian large catchment and quickly transferred to the oceanic carbon reservoir via riverine freshwater transport into the Okhotsk Sea and the North Pacific.

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Winterfeld, M. (2014): Biomarker and carbon isotope constraints (d13C, ∆14C) on sources and cycling of particulate organic matter discharged by large Siberian rivers draining permafrost areas , PhD thesis, University of Bremen.


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