Research ArticleCLIMATOLOGY

Increasing Pleistocene permafrost persistence and carbon cycle conundrums inferred from Canadian speleothems

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Science Advances  28 Apr 2021:
Vol. 7, no. 18, eabe5799
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abe5799


Permafrost carbon represents a potentially powerful amplifier of climate change, but little is known about permafrost sensitivity and associated carbon cycling during past warm intervals. We reconstruct permafrost history in western Canada during Pleistocene interglacials from 130 uranium-thorium ages on 72 speleothems, cave deposits that only accumulate with deep ground thaw. We infer that permafrost thaw extended to the high Arctic during one or more periods between ~1.5 million and 0.5 million years ago but has been limited to the sub-Arctic since 400,000 years ago. Our Canadian speleothem growth history closely parallels an analogous reconstruction from Siberia, suggesting that this shift toward more stable permafrost across the Pleistocene may have been Arctic-wide. In contrast, interglacial greenhouse gas concentrations were relatively stable throughout the Pleistocene, suggesting that either permafrost thaw did not trigger substantial carbon release to the atmosphere or it was offset by carbon uptake elsewhere on glacial-interglacial time scales.

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