Large herbivores on permafrost— a pilot study of grazing impacts on permafrost soil carbon storage in northeastern Siberia

Torben Windirsch, Guido Grosse, Mathias Ulrich, Bruce C. Forbes, Mathias Göckede, Juliane Wolter, Marc Macias-Fauria, Johan Olofsson, Nikita Zimov, Jens Strauss

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The risk of carbon emissions from permafrost is linked to an increase in ground temperature and thus in particular to thermal insulation by vegetation, soil layers and snow cover. Ground insulation can be influenced by the presence of large herbivores browsing for food in both winter and summer. In this study, we examine the potential impact of large herbivore presence on the soil carbon storage in a thermokarst landscape in northeastern Siberia. Our aim in this pilot study is to conduct a first analysis on whether intensive large herbivore grazing may slow or even reverse permafrost thaw by affecting thermal insulation through modifying ground cover properties. As permafrost soil temperatures are important for organic matter decomposition, we hypothesize that herbivory disturbances lead to differences in ground-stored carbon. Therefore, we analyzed five sites with a total of three different herbivore grazing intensities on two landscape forms (drained thermokarst basin, Yedoma upland) in Pleistocene Park near Chersky. We measured maximum thaw depth, total organic carbon content, δ13C isotopes, carbon-nitrogen ratios, and sediment grain-size composition as well as ice and water content for each site. We found the thaw depth to be shallower and carbon storage to be higher in intensively grazed areas compared to extensively and non-grazed sites in the same thermokarst basin. First data show that intensive grazing leads to a more stable thermal ground regime and thus to increased carbon storage in the thermokarst deposits and active layer. However, the high carbon content found within the upper 20 cm on intensively grazed sites could also indicate higher carbon input rather than reduced decomposition, which requires further studies including investigations of the hydrology and general ground conditions existing prior to grazing introduction. We explain our findings by intensive animal trampling in winter and vegetation changes, which overcompensate summer ground warming. We conclude that grazing intensity—along with soil substrate and hydrologic conditions—might have a measurable influence on the carbon storage in permafrost soils. Hence the grazing effect should be further investigated for its potential as an actively manageable instrument to reduce net carbon emission from permafrost.

Original languageEnglish
Article number893478
JournalFrontiers in Environmental Science
Publication statusPublished - 25 Aug 2022
MoEC publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • animal husbandry
  • bio-geo interactions
  • climate change
  • organic material inventory
  • rewilding

Field of science

  • Geosciences


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