Landscape matters: Predicting the biogeochemical effects of permafrost thaw on aquatic networks with a state factor approach

Suzanne E. Tank*, Jorien E. Vonk, Michelle A. Walvoord, James W. McClelland, Isabelle Laurion, Benjamin W. Abbott

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Permafrost thaw has been widely observed to alter the biogeochemistry of recipient aquatic ecosystems. However, research from various regions has shown considerable variation in effect. In this paper, we propose a state factor approach to predict the release and transport of materials from permafrost through aquatic networks. Inspired by Hans Jenny's seminal description of soil-forming factors, and based on the growing body of research on the subject, we propose that a series of state factors—including relief, ice content, permafrost extent, and parent material—will constrain and direct the biogeochemical effect of thaw over time. We explore state-factor-driven variation in thaw response using a series of case studies from diverse regions of the permafrost-affected north, and also describe unique scaling considerations related to the mobile and integrative nature of aquatic networks. While our cross-system review found coherent responses to thaw for some biogeochemical constituents, such as nutrients, others, such as dissolved organics and particles, were much more variable in their response. We suggest that targeted, hypothesis-driven investigation of the effects of state factor variation will bolster our ability to predict the biogeochemical effects of thaw across diverse and rapidly changing northern landscapes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)358-370
Number of pages13
JournalPermafrost and Periglacial Processes
Issue number3
Early online date27 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2020

Bibliographical note

Special Issue: Transactions of the International Permafrost Association No. 3


Conversations with many co-authors and colleagues over the years, in addition to the excellent biogeochemical research being undertaken in regions not directly highlighted in this review, have shaped the manuscript. Chris Burn, Bob Hilton, Kim Wickland, Steve Kokelj, and one anonymous reviewer offered comments that substantially improved the manuscript. Joanna Li Yung Lung assisted with the preparation of Figure 1. S.E.T. acknowledges support from the Campus Alberta Innovates Program. J.W.M. acknowledges support from the BLE LTER program (US NSF grant 1656026).

FundersFunder number
Campus Alberta
National Science Foundation1656026


    • aquatic networks
    • biogeochemistry
    • permafrost thaw
    • state factor approach


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