Freshwater Ecosystems are an Important Part of the Alaskan Carbon Cycle

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While freshwater ecosystems cover only a small amount of the land surface in Alaska, they transport and emit a significant amount of carbon, according to new U.S. Geological Survey research. An invited feature article for Ecological Applications provides the first-ever major aquatic carbon flux assessment for the entire state. Carbon flux refers to the rate of carbon transfer between pools.

The scientists found that the major freshwater carbon fluxes in Alaska were river carbon transport to the coastal ocean and carbon dioxide emissions from water surfaces into the atmosphere. Rivers encounter multiple carbon sources as they meander through the landscape, including carbon released from decomposing vegetation, weathered rocks, eroded soils, melting glaciers, or thawing permafrost. The quantity and quality of the carbon can impact aquatic food webs in estuaries and coastal oceans.

 

Permafrost degradation has been linked to higher rates of organic matter delivery to lake bottoms, and the increased rates of greenhouse gasses emissions from lakes, including carbon dioxide and methane, have been documented. Although lake methane emission rates were lower than previously published rates for high latitude regions, the study found that total lake gas emission rates, including both carbon dioxide and methane, were consistently higher than the amount of carbon stored in sediments at the bottom of lakes. This indicates that lakes were net sources of carbon to the atmosphere on an annual time scale.

 

Many carbon cycle studies focus predominantly on terrestrial carbon fluxes, as plants take up a substantial amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their tissues, and soils store vast amounts of carbon from decomposing plant material. But this study shows that freshwater fluxes are also significant and should be considered an important component of the Alaskan carbon cycle.

 

Sarah Stackpoole, a USGS research ecologist and the lead author of the study says, “In the southern parts of the state, freshwater carbon fluxes were equal to roughly 30 percent of the carbon stored in trees, shrubs, and grasses. Therefore, continued long-term monitoring and a more comprehensive view of land-water-air interactions is necessary to predict the impact of climate change on these systems in the future.”

 

For more information about carbon fluxes in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, please visit the USGS Land Carbon Program website.

Hydrologic change in the Yukon Flats region, Alaska
Example of hydrologic change in the Yukon Flats region of Alaska.(Credit: Rob Striegl, USGS. Public domain.)

 

USGS scientists on Yukon River
USGS scientists conducting research on a boat on the Yukon River, between Eagle and Circle, Alaska.
(Credit: Mark Dornblaser, USGS. Public domain.)
Hydrologic Regions of Alaska
The six major hydrologic regions of Alaska (Southeast, South Central, Southwest, Yukon, Northwest, and North Slope), terrestrial ecosystem types, receiving waters and oceans.(Public domain.)