Contemporary, decadal, and millennial-scale permafrost- and vegetation dynamics and carbon release in an alpine region of Jotunheimen, Norway

Abstract

Climatic warming in northern alpine regions facilitates the thawing of permafrost, the associated release of soil carbon into the atmosphere, and the altitudinal shifts in vegetation patterns. Here, a multi-disciplinary approach is adopted to investigate the response of an alpine permafrost landscape (Jotunheimen, Norway, with focus on Galdhøpiggen) to climatic changes over long- to medium timescales. First, a gas analyser is used to explore how ecosystem respiration is affected by ecosystem (soil and vegetation) and geomorphological (cryogenic disturbance) factors during the peak growing season. A palaeoecological record is then analysed to infer the past dynamics of the alpine tree lines and the lower limit of permafrost on Galdhøpiggen over the millennial- and centennial scales. Finally, remotely sensed satellite imagery is combined with observed air temperatures to create a model that provides an estimation of land surface temperatures over the past six decades. The model is then used to predict surface ‘greenness’ over the same period. Palynological evidence from Galdhøpiggen indicates that the altitudinal limits of alpine tree lines have shifted by hundreds of metres in response to climatic changes over the millennial scale. Since 1957, the model predictions indicate substantial increases in land surface temperatures and growing season surface ‘greenness’ (i.e., vegetation abundance) in Jotunheimen, but the change has not been spatially uniform. The highest increases were recorded over the low- and mid-alpine heaths above the tree line (1050-1500 m a.s.l.), which was attributed to increased shrub cover. This trend could facilitate carbon release from the ground, as peak growing season ecosystem respiration was found to be most strongly controlled by soil microclimate and plant growth forms. The likely future scenario in response to warming in Jotunheimen will be continued permafrost degradation, with higher altitudes (≥1500 m a.s.l.) experiencing decreased cryoturbation, increased shrub encroachment and higher surface CO2 emissions

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