NITROKARST - Effects of permafrost on the global nitrogen cycle (The role of thermokarst systems)

The Arctic is warming more rapidly than any other region in the world. There, permafrost soils cover ~25% of terrestrial surface and hold the world's largest soil organic carbon (C) and global nitrogen (N) pools. Rising temperatures are increasing the magnitude of permafrost thaw, impacting biogeochemistry, hydrology and ecology. Permafrost with low ice content suffers a gradual top-down thawing process during seasonal freeze-thaw period.

However, thaw of ice-rich permafrost results in thermokarst processes, which occur abruptly and lead to ground surface collapse. Its widespread occurrence affects large areas (~40% of the northern permafrost region) contributing to develop ecosystems like ponds and lakes. In such ecosystems, the presence of anaerobic environments enhances microbial activity. As Arctic warms, both active layer deepening and thermokarst processes will increase, releasing soluble N into the environment and enhancing microbial decomposition of soil organic matter (SOM). So far, many studies have addressed the importance of permafrost thaw in the C cycle. However, little attention has been paid to the N cycle, despite nitrous oxide (N2O) is a powerful greenhouse gas (GHG), an ozone-depleting agent and may create an unaccounted permafrost-climate feedback. Processes such as mineralization, nitrification and denitrification rates are expected to increase, and thus, N2O emissions to the atmosphere. The goal of NITROKARST is to explore the underlying mechanisms of the N cycle in thermokarst systems, looking at how microbial pathways promote N transformation and how thawing controls the operation of these processes. N cycling will be studied along thermokarst transects by combining isotope tracing, DNA metabarcoding and microcosm incubations. This multidisciplinary approach will increase our knowledge about the importance of thermokarst-affected permafrost soils in the global N cycle.

This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 101024321.


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