Hidden source of carbon found in the Arctic

A previously unknown significant source of carbon just discovered in the Arctic has scientists marveling at a once overlooked contributor to local coastal ecosystems. There are concerns about what it may mean in an era of climate change. 

A hidden source of carbon has been found in the Arctic. Image credit: Christian Hoiberg via Flickr

Scientists have discovered evidence of significant, undetected concentrations and fluxes of dissolved organic matter entering Arctic coastal waters, with the source being groundwater flow atop frozen permafrost.

This water moves from land to sea unseen, but researchers now believe it carries significant concentrations of carbon and other nutrients to Arctic coastal food webs, according to a statement.

Groundwater is known globally to be important for delivering carbon and other nutrients to oceans, but in the Arctic, where much water remains trapped in frozen earth, its role has been less clear.

Groundwater contributes a lot of organic matter

Scientists were surprised to learn that groundwater may be contributing an amount of dissolved organic matter to the Alaskan Beaufort Sea that is almost on a par with what comes from neighboring rivers during the summer.

“We have to start thinking differently about groundwater,” said senior author Jim McClelland, professor of marine sciences at UT Austin. “The water that flows from rivers to the Arctic Ocean is pretty well accounted for, but until now the groundwater flowing to this ocean hasn’t been.”

The research describes sampling the concentration and age of dissolved carbon, as well as nitrogen, in groundwater flowing beneath the land’s surface in the Arctic during the summer.

New and old organic carbon flow in groundwater

The team found that as shallow groundwater flows beneath the surface at sites in northern Alaska, it picks up new, young organic carbon and nitrogen as expected. However, they also discovered that as groundwater flows toward the ocean, it mixes with layers of deeper soils and thawing permafrost, picking up and transporting century-to-millennia old organic carbon and nitrogen.

“Groundwater inputs are unique because this material is a direct shot to the ocean without seeing or being photodegraded by light,” McClelland said. “Sunlight on the water can decompose organic carbon as it travels downstream in rivers. Organic matter delivered to the coastal ocean in groundwater is not subject to this process, and thus may be valuable as a food source to bacteria and higher organisms that live in Arctic coastal waters.”

The researchers concluded that the supply of leachable organic carbon from groundwater amounts to as much as 70 per cent of the dissolved organic matter flux from rivers to the Alaska Beaufort Sea during the summer.

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