Simulated high-latitude soil thermal dynamics during the past 4 decades
Abstract. Soil temperature (Ts) change is a key indicator of the dynamics of permafrost. On seasonal and interannual timescales, the variability of Ts determines the active-layer depth, which regulates hydrological soil properties and biogeochemical processes. On the multi-decadal scale, increasing Ts not only drives permafrost thaw/retreat but can also trigger and accelerate the decomposition of soil organic carbon. The magnitude of permafrost carbon feedbacks is thus closely linked to the rate of change of soil thermal regimes. In this study, we used nine process-based ecosystem models with permafrost processes, all forced by different observation-based climate forcing during the period 1960–2000, to characterize the warming rate of Ts in permafrost regions. There is a large spread of Ts trends at 20 cm depth across the models, with trend values ranging from 0.010 ± 0.003 to 0.031 ± 0.005 °C yr−1. Most models show smaller increase in Ts with increasing depth. Air temperature (Tsub>a) and longwave downward radiation (LWDR) are the main drivers of Ts trends, but their relative contributions differ amongst the models. Different trends of LWDR used in the forcing of models can explain 61 % of their differences in Ts trends, while trends of Ta only explain 5 % of the differences in Ts trends. Uncertain climate forcing contributes a larger uncertainty in Ts trends (0.021 ± 0.008 °C yr−1, mean ± standard deviation) than the uncertainty of model structure (0.012 ± 0.001 °C yr−1), diagnosed from the range of response between different models, normalized to the same forcing. In addition, the loss rate of near-surface permafrost area, defined as total area where the maximum seasonal active-layer thickness (ALT) is less than 3 m loss rate, is found to be significantly correlated with the magnitude of the trends of Ts at 1 m depth across the models (R = −0.85, P = 0.003), but not with the initial total near-surface permafrost area (R = −0.30, P = 0.438). The sensitivity of the total boreal near-surface permafrost area to Ts at 1 m is estimated to be of −2.80 ± 0.67 million km2 °C−1. Finally, by using two long-term LWDR data sets and relationships between trends of LWDR and Ts across models, we infer an observation-constrained total boreal near-surface permafrost area decrease comprising between 39 ± 14 × 103 and 75 ± 14 × 103 km2 yr−1 from 1960 to 2000. This corresponds to 9–18 % degradation of the current permafrost area.