Transformation of terrestrial organic matter along thermokarst-affected permafrost coasts in the Arctic

George Tanski*, Hugues Lantuit, Saskia Ruttor, Christian Knoblauch, Boris Radosavljevic, Jens Strauss, Juliane Wolter, Anna M. Irrgang, Justine Ramage, Michael Fritz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The changing climate in the Arctic has a profound impact on permafrost coasts, which are subject to intensified thermokarst formation and erosion. Consequently, terrestrial organic matter (OM) is mobilized and transported into the nearshore zone. Yet, little is known about the fate of mobilized OM before and after entering the ocean. In this study we investigated a retrogressive thaw slump (RTS) on Qikiqtaruk - Herschel Island (Yukon coast, Canada). The RTS was classified into an undisturbed, a disturbed (thermokarst-affected) and a nearshore zone and sampled systematically along transects. Samples were analyzed for total and dissolved organic carbon and nitrogen (TOC, DOC, TN, DN), stable carbon isotopes (δ13C-TOC, δ13C-DOC), and dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN), which were compared between the zones. C/N-ratios, δ13C signatures, and ammonium (NH4-N) concentrations were used as indicators for OM degradation along with biomarkers (n-alkanes, n-fatty acids, n-alcohols). Our results show that OM significantly decreases after disturbance with a TOC and DOC loss of 77 and 55% and a TN and DN loss of 53 and 48%, respectively. C/N-ratios decrease significantly, whereas NH4-N concentrations slightly increase in freshly thawed material. In the nearshore zone, OM contents are comparable to the disturbed zone. We suggest that the strong decrease in OM is caused by initial dilution with melted massive ice and immediate offshore transport via the thaw stream. In the mudpool and thaw stream, OM is subject to degradation, whereas in the slump floor the nitrogen decrease is caused by recolonizing vegetation. Within the nearshore zone of the ocean, heavier portions of OM are directly buried in marine sediments close to shore. We conclude that RTS have profound impacts on coastal environments in the Arctic. They mobilize nutrients from permafrost, substantially decrease OM contents and provide fresh water and nutrients at a point source.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)434-447
Number of pages14
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Biogeochemistry
  • Canadian Arctic
  • Carbon degradation
  • Coastal erosion
  • Retrogressive thaw slump


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