Mobilization of subsurface carbon pools driven by permafrost thaw and reactivation of groundwater flow : a virtual experiment

Mohammed, Aaron A.; Guimond, Julia A.; Bense, Victor F.; Jamieson, Rob C.; McKenzie, Jeffrey M.; Kurylyk, Barret L.


Permafrost thaw leads to an increase in groundwater circulation and potential mobilization of organic carbon sequestered in deep Arctic sediments (e.g. 3-25 m below surface). Upon thaw, a portion of this carbon may be transported along new groundwater flow paths to surface waters or be microbially transformed or immobilized by in-situ biogeochemical reactions. The fate of thaw-mobilized carbon impacts surface water productivity and global climate. We developed a numerical model to investigate the effects of subsurface warming, permafrost thaw, and resultant increased groundwater flow on the mobilization and reactive transport of dissolved organic carbon (DOC). Synthetic simulations demonstrate that mobilization and groundwater-borne DOC export are determined by subsurface thermo-chemical conditions that control the interplay of DOC production (organic matter degradation), mineralization, and sorption. Results suggest that peak carbon mobilization from these depths precedes complete permafrost loss, occurring within two centuries of thaw initiation with the development of supra-permafrost groundwater flow systems. Additionally, this study highlights the lack of field data needed to constrain these new models and apply them in real-word site-specific applications, specifically the amount and spatial variability of organic carbon in deep sediments and data to constrain DOC production rates for groundwater systems in degrading permafrost. Modeling results point to key biogeochemical parameters related to organic matter and carbon bioavailability to be measured in the field to bridge the gap between models and observations. This study provides a foundation for further developing a physics-based modeling framework to incorporate the influence of groundwater flow and permafrost thaw on permafrost DOC dynamics and export, which is imperative for advancing understanding and prediction of carbon release and terrestrial-aquatic carbon exchange in warming Artic landscapes in the coming decades.