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Frontiers
Study Pulls the Plug on Arctic's Carbon Sink

March/April 1998

The arctic tundra seemed to be a straightforward example of a carbon sink: The vast, treeless, permafrosted plain took in more carbon through photosynthesis than it released through decay and respiration.

But members of the Gas Flux Study, part of NSF's Arctic System Science Program, have pulled the plug on the "carbon sink" image. In a three-year study in Alaska's Kuparuk River Basin, the team found that some years the tundra adds more carbon than it removes, although the total amount released is still quite small.

The team also discovered a measurement problem. "Five or six years ago, all of the estimates were made only on the terrestrial side," says biologist George Kling of the University of Michigan. The estimates ignored the tundra's streams and lakes and therefore underestimated the amount of carbon released.

The team uses computer models to quantify the amount of carbon flux from the arctic tundra into the global ecosystem. The estimates are only for the current climate; if the arctic gets warmer, as predicted, all bets are off. A warmer arctic may mean more carbon and more methane, or just more carbon. It might also mean more nitrogen, because plants will decay faster. Since most of the tundra plants are limited by the amount of nitrogen in the soil, more nitrogen would mean more plant growth.
[July/August 1997]


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