Soil organic carbon pools in the northern circumpolar permafrost
J. G. Canadell,
E. A. G. Schuur,
and S. Zimov
Received 13 August 2008; revised 1 April 2009; accepted 3 April 2009; published 27 June 2009.
The Northern Circumpolar Soil Carbon Database was developed in order to
determine carbon pools in soils of the northern circumpolar permafrost region. The area
of all soils in the northern permafrost region is approximately 18,782 10
approximately 16% of the global soil area. In the northern permafrost region, organic
soils (peatlands) and cryoturbated permafrost-affected mineral soils have the highest
mean soil organic carbon contents (32.2–69.6 kg m
). Here we report a new estimate of
the carbon pools in soils of the northern permafrost region, including deeper layers
and pools not accounted for in previous analyses. Carbon pools were estimated to be
191.29 Pg for the 0–30 cm depth, 495.80 Pg for the 0 – 100 cm depth, and 1024.00 Pg for
the 0–300 cm depth. Our estimate for the first meter of soil alone is about double
that reported for this region in previous analyses. Carbon pools in layers deeper than
300 cm were estimated to be 407 Pg in yedoma deposits and 241 Pg in deltaic deposits. In
total, the northern permafrost region contains approximately 1672 Pg of organic
carbon, of which approximately 1466 Pg, or 88%, occurs in perennially frozen soils and
deposits. This 1672 Pg of organic carbon would account for approximately 50% of the
estimated global belowground organic carbon pool.
Citation: Tarnocai, C., J. G. Canadell, E. A. G. Schuur, P. Kuhry, G. Mazhitova, and S. Zimov (2009), Soil organic carbon pools in
the northern circumpolar permafrost region, Global Biogeochem. Cycles,23, GB2023, doi:10.1029/2008GB003327.
 The biosphere holds large carbon pools which, if
destabilized through changes in climate and land use, can
lead to accelerated emissions of greenhouse gases to the
atmosphere [Gruber et al., 2004]. Global climate-carbon
models that account for only a few of these large pools
show that carbon-climate feedbacks can lead to an average
of 50 to 100 ppm additional CO
in the atmosphere by the
end of this century [Friedlingstein et al., 2006]. Therefore,
it is important that future climate models include all major
carbon pools and the processes that control their long-term
carbon balance [Canadell et al., 2007].
 Carbon stored in permafrost regions is one of the least
understood and potentially most significant carbon-climate
feedbacks because of the size of the carbon pools and the
intensity of climate forcing at high latitudes [Schuur et al.,
2008]. The areal extent of permafrost soils and the carbon
pools they contain have been underestimated since, in the
past, the specific soil processes that lead to long-term
carbon sequestration were not taken into account [Post et
al., 1982; Jobba´gy and Jackson, 2000].
 There are a number of estimates of global soil organic
carbon pools. Estimates for the 0– 100 cm depth include
1220 Pg [Sombroek et al., 1993], 1395 Pg [Post et al.,
1982], 1462 to 1548 Pg [Batjes, 1996], 1502 Pg [Jobba´gy
and Jackson, 2000], and 1576 Pg [Eswaran et al., 1993].
Batjes  also reports global organic carbon pools for
the 0–200 cm depth (2376 – 2456 Pg) and Jobba´gy and
Jackson  report global organic carbon pools for both
the 100 – 200 cm (491 Pg) and 200 – 300 cm (351 Pg)
 Few estimates exist of the size and spatial distribution
of carbon pools in permafrost regions. Post et al. 
estimate that soils in the tundra zone contain, globally,
approximately 191.8 Pg of organic carbon. This estimate,
however, is based on only 30 samples to a depth of 100 cm.
Tarnocai et al. , using the Northern and Mid
Latitudes Soil Database (NMLSD), estimated that the
organic carbon pool in the 0–100 cm depth of Cryosols
(permafrost-affected soils) in the northern circumpolar
GLOBAL BIOGEOCHEMICAL CYCLES, VOL. 23, GB2023, doi:10.1029/2008GB003327, 2009
Research Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa, Ontario,
Global Carbon Project, Marine and Atmospheric Research, CSIRO,
Canberra, ACT, Australia.
Department of Botany, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida,
Department of Physical Geography and Quaternary Geology,
Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden.
Komi Science Center, Russian Academy of Sciences, Syktyvkar,
Deceased 22 February 2009.
Northeast Science Station, Russian Academy of Sciences, Cherskii,
Copyright 2009 by the American Geophysical Union.
region was approximately 268 Pg. Since then, however, the
availability of new data sets in the Northern Circumpolar
Soil Carbon Database (NCSCD) has shown that the
NMLSD greatly underestimated the area of permafrost-
affected soils in Eurasia.
 This paper reports new estimates of the organic
carbon pools in both permafrost-affected and nonpermafrost
soils in the northern circumpolar permafrost region. The
new estimates, unlike those from previous analyses, include
deeper layers, down to 300 cm, and additional carbon pools
to depths greater than 300 cm for deltaic and yedoma
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Northern Circumpolar Permafrost Region
 The study area encompasses the northern circumpolar
permafrost region. This region is divided into four zones on
the basis of the percentage of the land area underlain by
permafrost (Figure 1): the Continuous Permafrost Zone
(90 to 100%), the Discontinuous Permafrost Zone
(50 to <90%), the Sporadic Permafrost Zone (10 to
<50%), and the Isolated Patches Permafrost Zone (0 to
<10%) [Brown et al., 1997].
2.2. Northern Circumpolar Soil Carbon Database
 The new estimates of organic carbon pools in soils of
the permafrost region were calculated using the NCSCD
(C. Tarnocai et al., 2007, Research Branch, Agriculture
and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa; available at http://
zip, hereinafter referred to as Tarnocai et al., unpublished
data, 2007). This database contains over ten thousand
polygons, with each polygon (mapping unit) containing
one or more named soils or soil taxa that form the basis
for determining the carbon pools. Data for North America
and Europe are available in digital form in local soil data-
bases that have been compiled from existing soil survey
maps (Table 1). For remote areas in North America, where
detailed soil maps are unavailable, pedon, climate, and
vegetation data, together with high-quality LANDSAT
imagery, were used to delineate polygons. For Russia,
Greenland, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Svalbard
spatial soil information was digitized as it was only
available as hard copy maps (Table 1).
 Data used to calculate carbon content (kg m
derived from multiple pedon databases (the pedon, or soil
profile, is the basic soil unit used for describing, sampling,
and classifying soils). The North American portion of the
NCSCD was built up using 1038 pedons from northern
Canada and 131 pedons from Alaska. The Eurasian portion
of the NCSCD includes a newly assembled database
containing soil organic carbon content data for 253 Russian
pedons. Two existing databases also were used to obtain
Russian data, the West Siberian Lowland Peatland GIS Data
Collection, containing data for 90 peat cores [Sheng et al.,
2004; Smith et al., 2000, 2004], and the Usa Basin database,
containing information for 266 mineral and organic soils
[Kuhry et al., 2002; Mazhitova et al., 2003]. Information
from Batjes  was also used for Eurasian soils
(including Russia), especially for those soils where no
pedon information was available.
2.2.1. Computation of Soil Carbon Content
 Representative pedons for each soil taxon (Eurasia)
or named soil (North America) were selected. Data for
the various layers that compose each named soil (North
America) and each soil taxon (Eurasia) were entered into the
database and were used to calculate the carbon content of
each named soil in the polygon.
 The Soil Organic Carbon Content (SOCC, kg m
was calculated for each named soil (North America) and for
the representative pedons for each soil taxon (Eurasia) using
SOCC ¼CBD Tð1CF Þ;
where Cis the organic carbon (% weight), BD is the bulk
density (g cm
), Tis the soil layer thickness, and CF is the
coarse fragments and/or ice content (% weight). Using this
information, the SOCC was then calculated for the 0– 30,
0–100, 100– 200 and 200 – 300 cm depths, or layers, for all
pedons and these data were stored in the database. The
percentages of the SOCC occurring in the 0 – 100, 100 – 200
and 200–300 cm depths of each major soil were then
calculated on the basis of a total soil depth of 0 – 300 cm.
2.2.2. Computation of Soil Carbon Mass
 The Soil Organic Carbon Mass (SOCM, Pg) was then
determined by multiplying the SOCC of the specific soil
by the area of each such soil component in the polygon.
When summed, these data provide information on the
SOCM of each soil in each permafrost zone in the northern
 For the North American portion of the study area, the
SOCM for Histels and Histosols (peatlands) was calculated
for the 0–100 cm depth and for the total depth of the peat
deposit since this depth was included in the database. Since
not all peat deposits in the Eurasian portion extend to
300 cm, the depth data obtained from the Usa and West
Siberian databases [Kuhry et al., 2002; Sheng et al., 2004]
were used to determine the percent distribution of peat in
three depth categories, 0–100 cm (100%), 0 – 200 cm
(50%), and 0–300 cm (10%). These percentages were then
used to adjust the SOCM calculated for the various depths
of the Eurasian peat soils (Histels and Histosols).
 Inceptisols were the only unfrozen mineral soils for
which deep carbon data were available. The SOCM for
these soils was calculated on the basis of data indicating that
the 100–200 cm layer of the Inceptisols contained approx-
imately 80% of the SOCC contained in the 0– 100 cm layer
and that the 200–300 cm layer contained no organic carbon.
It was assumed that, like the Inceptisols, the other unfrozen
mineral soils would also contain no soil organic carbon in
the 200–300 cm layer.
2.3. Additional Deep Carbon Pools
 In addition to the soil carbon in the 0– 300 cm depth,
we are also reporting the two deep carbon pools (greater
than 300 cm) described below.
 Yedoma deposits. These perennially frozen, loess-
like (wind-blown) deposits, which have an average depth of
approximately 25 m, contain large amounts of organic
GB2023 TARNOCAI ET AL.: SOIL ORGANIC CARBON POOLS
carbon and ice, mainly in the form of ice wedges [Zimov et
al., 2006b]. Using SOCC data from the NCSCD, we
calculated the SOCM for the 0– 300 cm layer of these
deposits. This value was then deducted from the value
obtained for the 0–25 m depth in order to avoid double
counting the 0–300 cm layer.
 River deltas. Information on the thickness of these
alluvial deposits and the concentration of organic carbon in
them is very scarce, except for the delta sediments of the
Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories of Canada.
Thus, this delta was used in this assessment as a model to
estimate the carbon mass contained in the major northern
 The Mackenzie delta covers approximately
, half of which is covered by shallow lakes
and river channels. On the basis of five Mackenzie delta soil
profiles [Tarnocai et al., 1993; C. Tarnocai and H. Veldhuis,
unpublished data, 1980, 1984], this delta has an SOCC of
Figure 1. Northern circumpolar permafrost map (derived from information by Brown et al. ).
Table 1. Data Sources for the NCSCD
Country or Region Scale Type of Data Source
USA 1:250,000 Digital Soil Survey Staff 
Canada 1:1,000,000 Digital C. Tarnocai and B. Lacelle (1996)
Russia 1:2,500,000 Soil map Fridland  and Naumov 
Kazakhstan 1:2,500,000 Soil map Uspanov 
Mongolia 1:3,000,000 Soil map Dorzhgotov and Nogina 
Greenland 1:7,500,000 Soil map Jakobsen and Eiby 
Scandinavia 1:1,000,000 Digital European Soil Bureau 
Iceland 1:1,500,000 Soil map Arnalds and Gretarsson 
The Soil Organic Carbon Digital Database of Canada, Research Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa, 1996;
available at http://wms1.agr.gc.ca/soilcarbonofCanada/soilcarbonofCanada.zip.
GB2023 TARNOCAI ET AL.: SOIL ORGANIC CARBON POOLS
65 kg m
. The average thickness of delta deposits was
calculated to be 50 m (on the basis of drill core data). In
order to avoid double counting the upper 0 – 300 cm of the
terrestrial portion of the delta, calculation of the SOCC was
based on the 3– 50 m depth. For deposits under water
bodies, which are assumed to have an average depth of
5 m, the SOCC was calculated for a thickness of 45 m. It
was also assumed that the rate of organic matter accumu-
lation in recent decades was similar to that occurring in the
past. In addition, it should be pointed out that the SOCC
included only the carbon in the fine organic matter
(<2 mm); coarse organic matter (logs, driftwood, etc.) was
not included in these calculations.
2.4. Analytical Methods
 The carbon concentration (C%) was determined by
using either the Walkley-Black method or the LECO CHN
analyzer (after treating the samples with HCl to remove
inorganic carbon) [Sheldrick, 1984]. Bulk density (BD) was
determined by using core or clod samples, and coarse
fragments (>2 mm size) were either estimated or a sieve
method was used. It should be pointed out, however, that
the methods used to obtain the analytical data were not
always clearly identified in the original sources, a common
problem in global studies of soil carbon pools.
3.1. Permafrost-Affected and Nonpermafrost Soils
3.1.1. Soil Area
 The total area of soils in the northern circumpolar
permafrost region is 18,782 10
, with approximately
65% of the area occurring in Eurasia and 35% in North
America and Greenland. The largest portion of this soil area
(54%) lies within the Continuous Permafrost Zone, with the
remaining 46% being split approximately equally between
the Discontinuous, Sporadic, and Isolated Patches perma-
frost zones (Table 2). The distribution of the various soil
orders that occur in this region is shown in Figure 2.
 Peatlands, which are a common feature of all perma-
frost zones, cover about 3556 10
, or approximately
19% of the soil area of the northern circumpolar permafrost
region (Table 3). The area of peatlands in the permafrost
region of North America is 1048 10
and in Eurasia,
3.1.2. Carbon Content
184.108.40.206. Carbon Content at 0 – 100 cm
 The mean SOCC values calculated for the 0–100 cm
depth in soils of the northern permafrost region are given in
Table 4 and their distribution is shown in Figure 3. Histels
(perennially frozen peatland soils, Gelisols) and Histosols
(unfrozen peatland soils) have the highest SOCC values,
with mean values of 66.6 kg m
(maximum 133 kg m
for Histels and 69.6 kg m
(maximum 130 kg m
Histosols. The mean SOCC values for mineral Gelisols are
22.6 kg m
(Orthels) and 32.2 kg m
Turbels having the highest mean and maximum (126 kg m
SOCC values for mineral soils. In some cases these mean
and maximum values for Turbels are as much as three times
those for unfrozen mineral soils (Table 4).
 The standard deviation (SD) was greatest for Histels
(53.3) and Histosols (56.9) (Table 4), probably because of
the variable depth of peat deposits, the different types of
peat materials, the degree of decomposition, and the mineral
(ash) content. Turbels (27.4), Orthels (21.4), and Spodosols
(20.2) had the second greatest standard deviations. Their
relatively large values are probably due to the various
thicknesses of surface organic material associated with them
and, for Turbels, also to variability in the amounts of
cryoturbated organic materials they contain.
220.127.116.11. Carbon Content at 0 – 300 cm
 There are a number of processes that cause carbon to
be incorporated into the deeper layers of soils: cryoturbation
for Turbels, repeated deposition of organic-rich material for
Orthels (alluvium), and long-term deposition of organic
materials for Histels and Histosols [Bockheim, 2007;
Tarnocai and Stolbovoy, 2006].
 SOCC values for those soils with deeper layers
(below 100 cm) were calculated on the basis of a limited
number of available pedons (Table 5). The lowest SOCC
values occur in Orthels (without alluvium), a noncryoturbated,
permafrost-affected soil, and in Inceptisols, a nonpermafrost
soil. Neither of these soils has carbon occurring at depths
below 200 cm because they have no mechanisms other than
deep roots, leaching, or burial to move carbon into the deeper
soil layers. In addition, since the vegetation on these soils is
generally shallow rooted, it contributes very little or no carbon
to the deeper soil layers.
 Turbels contain approximately 38% of their carbon in
the upper 100 cm, 33% at 100–200 cm, and 28% at 200–
300 cm, representing a 5% decrease in carbon content per
100 cm. Orthels (alluvium) have about 80% of their carbon
distributed equally between the upper two layers (0 –
200 cm), with approximately 20% in the third layer
(200–300 cm). These levels of carbon probably also occur
at depths greater than 300 cm in some of these deposits.
 For Histosols the SOCC is approximately evenly
distributed in the three layers. The slight variation is
probably due to the origin of the peat material and amount
of mineral content. The distribution of carbon in Histels is
similar to that in Histosols, but the carbon content drops
somewhat in the third layer, probably because of the
increased ice content in this layer. The levels of carbon in
the 200–300 cm depth of these soils indicate that similar
carbon levels probably also occur at greater depths, depend-
ing on the total depth of the peat deposit.
3.1.3. Carbon Mass
18.104.22.168. Carbon Mass at 0 – 100 cm
 The total soil organic carbon mass (SOCM) in the 0–
100 cm depth is 495.80 Pg (Table 6) with peat deposits
containing approximately 150.46 Pg, or 30% of this mass
Table 2. Areas of All Soils in the Permafrost Zones
Continuous 2,868 7,255 10,123
Discontinuous 1,443 1,649 3,092
Sporadic 1,149 1,444 2,593
Isolated patches 1,186 1,788 2,974
Total 6,646 12,136 18,782
GB2023 TARNOCAI ET AL.: SOIL ORGANIC CARBON POOLS
Figure 2. Distribution of soils in the northern circumpolar permafrost region based on the NCSCD
(Tarnocai et al., unpublished data, 2007). Note that the legend entries followed by asterisks refer to
another U.S. taxonomic level.
GB2023 TARNOCAI ET AL.: SOIL ORGANIC CARBON POOLS
(Table 7). Approximately two thirds (67%) of the total soil
organic carbon mass is in the Eurasian portion of the
northern circumpolar permafrost region with the remainder
(33%) in the North American portion. The Continuous
Permafrost Zone contains 60% of the SOCM and the other
three zones together contain 40%.
22.214.171.124. Carbon Mass at 100 – 300 cm
 The total soil organic carbon mass (SOCM) in the
100–300 cm depth is 528.2 Pg (Table 8). For Turbels,
approximately 36% of the SOCM occurs in the first 100 cm
and 64% occurs in the 100–300 cm layers. Thus, two thirds
of the SOCM is missed if only the 0–100 cm layer is
sampled. This explains, to some extent, the smaller
estimates in previous analyses. For Orthels, all of the
SOCM occurs in the 0– 200 cm layers with approximately
97% in the first 100 cm and 3% in the 100–200 cm layer
 For unfrozen mineral soils, deep soil data is available
only for the Inceptisols. For these soils, the first 100 cm
contains approximately 68% of the SOCM and the 100–
200 cm layer contains approximately 32% (Table 8), with
no organic carbon occurring deeper than 200 cm. The
carbon in these soils originated dominantly from roots
and, to a lesser extent, from dissolved illuviated organic
matter. Since these soils are associated with shallow-rooted
vegetation, most of the organic carbon occurs in the upper
layer of the soil.
3.2. Additional Carbon Pools
 The organic carbon pools in all soils in the northern
permafrost region were determined uniformly to a depth of
300 cm. The deltaic, or alluvial, deposits and yedoma
deposits, however, cover vast areas and contain large
amounts of organic carbon below the 300 cm depth. While
the future fate of these deep carbon pools is beyond the
scope of this paper, mechanisms currently exist that can
Table 3. Areas of Peatlands in the Permafrost Zones
Peatland Area (10
Continuous 228 1895 2123
Discontinuous 272 159 431
Sporadic 321 240 561
Isolated patches 227 214 441
Total 1048 2508 3556
Figure 3. Distribution of soil organic carbon contents in the northern circumpolar permafrost region
based on the NCSCD (Tarnocai et al., unpublished data, 2007).
GB2023 TARNOCAI ET AL.: SOIL ORGANIC CARBON POOLS
rapidly expose deep permafrost carbon to thaw [Schuur et
al., 2008]. Thus, the first step is to quantify the size of these
deep permafrost carbon pools.
3.2.1. Yedoma Deposits
 These deposits, which were formed by the deposition
of sediments in unglaciated areas during glacial periods,
occur in areas that, at that time, were covered by a
mammoth steppe-tundra ecosystem. According to Zimov
et al. [2006b], these perennially frozen yedoma sediments
cover more than 1 million km
, have an average depth of
approximately 25 m, and contain 2– 5% organic carbon. In
continental areas, the yedoma sediments contain 1– 5%
organic carbon by dry mass (maximum 30%) [Zimov et
al., 2006a; Dutta et al., 2006] and in wetter areas they
contain 2–30% organic carbon [Schirrmeister et al., 2002].
Using an average carbon concentration of 2.6%, Zimov et
al. [2006b] estimated that that these sediments contain
approximately 500 Pg of carbon, subsequently revised to
450 Pg [Zimov et al., 2006a]. On the basis of this revised
estimate, yedoma sediments were found to contain 407 Pg
of organic carbon in the 3–25 m depth.
3.2.2. Deltaic Deposits
 The major river deltas included are those of the
Yukon and Colville rivers in Alaska, USA, the Mackenzie
River in the Northwest Territories of Canada, and the Lena,
Pechora, Ob, and Kolyma rivers in northern Russia. Sedi-
ments deposited by rivers contain organic matter. Since the
deposition is recurring, these freshly deposited materials are
buried by the new deposits and, in most cases, become
perennially frozen. This deposition is especially active on
the river deltas, where the deposited sediments can reach
several tens of meters in thickness. Although little informa-
tion, other than the area they cover, is available for the
major deltas of the circumpolar permafrost region, informa-
tion on the thickness of the deposits and the concentration
of organic carbon in them is available for the Mackenzie
River delta. Therefore, this delta was used as a model to
estimate the carbon mass in the major northern deltas. On
the basis of this model, we estimated that the seven major
river deltas contain a total of 241 Pg of SOCM in layers
deeper than 300 cm (Table 9).
 Our estimates indicate that the northern circumpolar
permafrost region contains 1024.00 Pg of soil organic
carbon in the surface 0–300 cm depth, with an additional
648 Pg of carbon locked in deep layers of yedoma (407 Pg)
and deltaic (241 Pg) deposits. In total, the northern circum-
polar permafrost region contains 1672 Pg of organic carbon,
of which 1466 Pg (88%) occurs in perennially frozen soils
and deposits. This 1672 Pg of organic carbon is a signifi-
cantly larger pool than previous estimates have given. Thus,
the northern circumpolar permafrost region contains
approximately 50% of the reported global belowground
organic carbon pool.
 Previous northern latitude nonpeatland soil carbon
pools were estimated to be in the range of 150– 191 Pg
carbon for boreal forest [Apps et al., 1993; Jobba´gy and
Jackson, 2000], and 60–144 Pg carbon for tundra [Apps et
al., 1993; Gilmanov and Oechel, 1995; Jobba´gy and
Jackson, 2000; Oechel et al., 1993]. Some widely cited
estimates quantify the soil carbon pool in northern peatlands
as 419–455 Pg [Gorham, 1991; Apps et al., 1993]. The
difference, in large part, between our new estimate and
previous estimates is the recognition and quantification of
significant carbon below 100 cm outside of peatlands,
although direct comparisons need to be made with caution
because of differences among studies.
 Estimates of global soil organic carbon pools for the
0–100 cm depth range between 1220 and 1576 Pg
[Eswaran et al., 1993; Sombroek et al., 1993; Batjes,
1996]. Batjes  reported that soil organic carbon pools
for the 0–200 cm depth were 2376 – 2456 Pg while Jobba´gy
Table 4. Mean Soil Organic Carbon Contents for the Upper 0 –
100 cm in Soils
SOCC (kg m
SD Number of PedonsMean Range
Histels 66.6 21 – 133 53.3 87
Turbels 32.2 1 – 126 27.4 256
Orthels 22.6 0.1 – 65 21.4 131
Histosols 69.6 6 – 130 56.9 417
unknown 8.3 unknown
Spodosols 24.7 2– 110 20.2 6
Aquic suborders 20.1 1 – 94 9.7 531
Inceptisols 15.3 0.5 – 93 9.4 871
Vertisols 13.5 6– 27 7.3 11
Entisols 9.9 6 – 75 15.8 198
Mollisols 9.6 1 – 42 8.3 422
Natric suborders 9.1 6 – 40 7.6 67
unknown 6.9 533
unknown 6.6 unknown
U.S. taxonomy [Soil Survey Staff, 1999].
SOCC data are from Batjes .
Table 5. Mean Soil Organic Carbon Contents and Ranges for the Various Soil Layers to a Depth of 300 cm
Number of Pedons0 – 100 cm 100 – 200 cm 200 – 300 cm Total (0 – 300 cm)
Turbels 61.0 (28 – 89) 53.1 (22 – 106) 45.1 (30 – 60) 159.2 8
Orthels (without alluvium) 4.5 (0.5 – 9) 1.6 (0.1 – 3) 0 6.1 4
Orthels (alluvium) 142.6 (142 – 143) 142.5 (142 – 143) 67.0 (66 – 68) 352.1 2
Histels 67.2 (31 – 171) 62.0 (22 – 128) 41.5 (20 – 94) 170.7 13
Histosols 64.7 (61 – 67) 62.6 (16 – 88) 67.5 (16 – 92) 194.8 15
Inceptisols 12.6 (7 – 22) 10.3 (1 – 23) 0 22.9 3
Calculated using only the deep pedons, so values do not match those in Table 4 for the 0– 100 cm depth of the same soils. Ranges are given in
GB2023 TARNOCAI ET AL.: SOIL ORGANIC CARBON POOLS
and Jackson  indicated that the pools for this depth
were 1993 Pg and for the 0–300 cm depth were 2344 Pg.
These global estimates indicate that soils in the northern
circumpolar permafrost region contain approximately 33%
of the global organic carbon in the 0–100 cm depth and
44% of that in the 0–300 cm depth.
4.1. Carbon Pools and Data Uncertainty
 The spatial and soil data used in this paper were
derived from a number of sources that had different rates of
accuracy and uncertainty. Therefore, assigning a single
confidence value to the new carbon estimate for the entire
northern circumpolar region would not be realistic. Instead,
we have divided this area into two subregions and have
assigned the confidence levels used in the IPCC Fourth
Assessment. As a result, we have medium to high confi-
dence (66–80%) in the North American data (for the 0 –
100 cm depth) since the carbon database, the largest data
set, was tested by the methods indicated below and low to
medium confidence (33– 66%) in the equivalent Eurasian
data, a smaller data set (section 2.2). We have very low to
low confidence (<33%) in the soil carbon estimates for the
deeper soil layers and for the other deposits since they are
based on an even smaller data set (Table 5).
 Data available for estimating carbon pools are limited
and are associated with numerous gaps and uncertainties.
SOCM data generated for the 0 – 100 cm depth in soils is
based on the largest pedon data set, especially for the North
American portion of the permafrost area. However, SOCM
data generated for greater depths are based on smaller data
sets and will require future improvements.
 The North American soil organic carbon estimates
presented in this paper were generated using data from the
NCSCD, which is an updated version of the Canadian Soil
Organic Carbon Database (CSOCD). Bhatti et al. 
compared carbon estimates generated by the CSOCD with
carbon values generated by both the Carbon Budget Model
of the Canadian Forest Sector (CBM-CFS2) and the Boreal
Forest Transect Case Study (BFTCS). They found that the
CSOCD generated slightly lower carbon values than the
CBM-CFS2 carbon model, but that there was good agree-
ment between CSOCD- and BFTCS-generated values.
 Although SOCM data are available for the perma-
frost region in Eurasia, Stolbovoi  provides only
estimates of 297 Pg for the 0 – 100 cm depth and 373 Pg
for the 0–200 cm depth for the SOCM of all soils in Russia.
In order to shed some light on the reliability of the Eurasian
soil organic carbon data, organic soils (Histels and unfrozen
Table 6. Organic Carbon Mass at Depths of 0– 30 cm and 0 –
100 cm in All Soils
0 – 30 cm 0 – 100 cm 0 – 30 cm 0 – 100 cm 0 –100 cm
Continuous 31.2 78.3 79.2 220.2 298.5
Discontinuous 12.2 29.6 13.3 37.7 67.3
Sporadic 10.9 26.2 15.5 36.7 62.9
Isolated patches 12.6 30.6 16.4 36.5 67.1
Total 66.9 164.7 124.4 331.1 495.8
Table 7. Soil Organic Carbon Mass for the Total Depth of the Peat
Deposits in North America and Eurasia
North America Eurasia Total
Continuous 21.8 1.5 23.3 120.9 144.2
Discontinuous 26.6 0.8 27.4 10.7 38.1
Sporadic 30.6 0.3 30.9 16.1 47.0
Isolated patches 32.9 0 32.9 15.1 48.0
Total 111.9 2.6 114.5 162.8 277.3
Calculated for the total depth of the peat deposit.
Calculated using the Peatlands of Canada database (C. Tarnocai et al.,
2005, Research Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa;
available at http://wms1.agr.gc.ca/peatlandofCanada/peatlandofCanada.
Calculated using the Northern and Mid-Latitude Soil Database
[Cryosol Working Group, 2004].
Table 8. Soil Organic Carbon Mass Values to a Depth of 300 cm
for Major Soil Groups
0 – 100 cm 100– 200 cm 200 – 300 cm 0– 300 cm
Gelisols 351.5 – – 818.0
Turbels 211.9 207.2 162.2 581.3
Orthels 51.3 1.7 0 53.0
Histels 88.3 – – 183.7
Alfisols 4.6 1.4 0 6.0
Inceptisols 23.2 10.8 0 34.0
Spodosols 28.4 9.4 0 37.8
Aquic suborders 4.2 2.8 0 7.0
Mollisols 10.7 2.1 0 12.8
Entisols 6.6 2.1 0 8.7
Histosols 62.2 – – 94.3
Aridisols 1.3 0.3 0 1.6
Andisols 2.9 0.7 0 3.6
Natric suborders 0.2 0 0 0.2
Total 495.8 – – 1024.0
U.S. taxonomy [Soil Survey Staff, 1999].
Calculated for the total depths of the various peat deposits but not
separated into layers for depths >100 cm.
SOCM <0.0001 Pg.
Table 9. Areas and Total Organic Carbon Mass Below 300 cm for
Major Deltas in the Northern Permafrost Region
River Delta Area (km
) Total Carbon Mass
Total 79,767 241
Carbon masses for all deltas were determined using the carbon content
calculated for the Mackenzie River Delta.
Information on major world deltas is available from J. M. Coleman and
O. K. Huh (unpublished data, 2004, available at http://www.geol.lsu.edu/
Mackenzie Delta information is available from Mackenzie River Basin
Ob River data are available from The Unabridged Hutchinson
Encyclopedia, available at http://encyclopedia.farlex.com/Ob+River.
Pavlov et al. .
GB2023 TARNOCAI ET AL.: SOIL ORGANIC CARBON POOLS
organic soils) were used as a test since this data is available
for Russian peatlands, which account for most of the peat-
lands in Eurasia. In Russia, organic soils and peatlands, by
definition, contain 30 cm or more of organic material (in
North America organic soils and peatlands contain 40 cm or
more of organic material). Various estimates of the areas
and SOCM of Russian peatlands are 1162 10
94 Pg [Stolbovoi, 2000], 1650 10
and 215 Pg
[Botch et al., 1995], and 2730 10
and 118 Pg
[Efremov et al., 1998]. For comparison, our paper gives an
estimated area of 2508 10
(Table 3) and an SOCM
of 162.80 Pg (Table 7) for the total depth of the peat deposit
in the permafrost zones of Eurasia. It is evident that the
areas and carbon masses in published estimates vary widely
(1162– 2730 10
and 94 – 215 Pg). These large
variations occur because of the poor inventory and limited
amount of reliable pedon data available for these soils. This
supports the levels of accuracy for estimates of peat carbon
established by Efremov et al.  of ±10–15 percent for
the European part of Russia and ±20–30 percent for the
Asian part of the country.
 The SOCC values of unfrozen and noncryoturbated
frozen mineral soils in the permafrost region are similar to
those of soils in the temperate region. In these soils, the
organic matter that is deposited on the soil surface is not
affected by cryoturbation. Some soluble organic matter may
move downward, but there is no mechanism for moving
organic matter from the surface into the deeper soil layers
and preserving it from decomposition and wildfires. Since
most of the belowground carbon in these soils originates
from roots, its residence time is thus relatively short.
4.2. Vulnerability of Carbon in Permafrost
 Permafrost degradation resulting from warmer tem-
peratures at high latitudes and changes in precipitation (e.g.,
increased snowfall leads to increased degradation) is
now widely reported [Payette et al., 2004; Camill, 2005;
Jorgenson et al., 2006]. Projections show that almost all
near-surface permafrost will disappear by the end of this
century [Lawrence et al., 2008] with the active layer
deepening at a decreasing rate as we move northward.
 Both depth and spatial distribution of permafrost
degradation will result in different degrees of vulnerability
of the various carbon pools as reported by Schuur et al.
. Carbon in near-surface permafrost is, and will be,
the most vulnerable pool during this century given the
retreat of permafrost to deeper layers. However, as perma-
frost thaws, the newly formed thermokarst lakes act as
conduits of both surface heat to deeper layers and deep
methane to the surface [Zimov et al., 2006a].
 Modeling work also suggests that global warming
could trigger an irreversible process of thawing as self-
sustaining heat generated by microbial activity leads to deep
soil respiration in a multicentury timeframe. This process,
which could continue even after warming has stabilized or
stopped, would result in long-term sustained chronic emis-
sions of CO
[Khvorostyanov et al., 2008]. Since
the yedoma deposits reported in this study occur in cold
permafrost, they are unlikely to show self-sustaining heat
generation although they can still be significant carbon
sources of 0.2 Pg C a
(or 1 Pg C a
the next century [Khvorostyanov et al., 2008].
 Global warming, thermokarst formation, and fire
frequency will push the net carbon balance and full radiative
forcing of permafrost degradation in directions often deter-
mined by regional conditions. This heterogeneity of the
regional net carbon balance is well illustrated by the
decrease in the net ecosystem productivity (NEP) in warm
and dry/wet regions in Alaska over the past two decades,
while NEP increased in the colder and wetter regions
[Thompson et al., 2006]. Fire will trigger additional ther-
mokarst collapse, accelerating permafrost degradation and
subsequent peat formation [Myers-Smith et al., 2008]. Not
taking into account these complex interactions, Zhuang et
al.  estimated net emissions from thawing permafrost
in the northern high latitudes at 7– 17 Pg in 100 years, while
Davidson and Janssens  report a potential carbon loss
of 100 Pg C over the same timeframe.
 The significance of having more accurate informa-
tion about the distribution of carbon in permafrost and the
size of the overall pool is well illustrated by the following
example. Gruber et al.  estimated that as much as
100 Pg of carbon could be released from thawing perma-
frost over this century, a 25% loss from the 400 Pg carbon
pool on which they based their calculations. Extrapolating
their analyses using our new carbon pool estimate would
yield a potential carbon loss four times greater. This alone
would account for the entire upper range of the multiple
carbon-climate feedbacks currently estimated by climate
models [Friedlingstein et al., 2006]. Even taking into
account the possibility that this is an extreme case and that
there will be other mechanisms which might remove carbon
from the atmosphere (e.g., enhanced plant uptake and
northward forest migration), the potential for significant
feedbacks from permafrost carbon could be realized with
only a small fraction of the total pool being thawed and
released to the atmosphere. More recently, Raupach and
Canadell , using a simple carbon-climate model and
a smaller frozen carbon pool (1000 Pg), showed that, if 10%
of the permafrost were to thaw, the feedback from CO
emissions could result in an additional 0.7°C and a CO
increment of 80 ppm by the end of this century. Landscape
and small-scale processes, which control the thawing of
permafrost and the subsequent decomposition of organic
matter, are the key processes that limit our ability to
constrain the future net carbon balance of permafrost
 The data presented in this paper indicate the large
amount of organic carbon stored in soils of the northern
circumpolar permafrost region. These new estimates will
help to provide a more reliable prediction for the effect of
global change and human activities on this carbon.
 1. Northern circumpolar soils are estimated to cover
approximately 18,782 10
and contain about 191 Pg
of organic carbon in the 0–30 cm depth, 496 Pg of organic
carbon in the 0–100 cm depth, and 1024 Pg of organic
carbon in the 0–300 cm depth. Our estimate for the first
GB2023 TARNOCAI ET AL.: SOIL ORGANIC CARBON POOLS
meter of soil alone is approximately double that reported in
 2. We also estimated the organic carbon pools in less
known and studied frozen deposits. These are the deltaic
deposits and the Siberian yedoma sediments, which contain
approximately 648 Pg of organic carbon at depths greater
than 300 cm. The 0– 300 cm carbon pool estimates for these
deposits are included in the estimates given in point 1.
 3. In the northern circumpolar permafrost region all
carbon pools combined contain approximately 1672 Pg of
organic carbon, which is approximately 50% of the global
belowground organic carbon and almost an order of
magnitude higher than that used in many global biogeo-
chemical and climate modeling studies (200 – 300 Pg C
from the FAO soil database).
 4. Our confidence in the North American soil carbon
estimates for the 0– 100 cm depth is medium to high (66 –
80%) while our confidence in the equivalent Eurasian
portion is low to medium (33 – 66%) since the estimates
are based on a smaller data set. Our confidence in carbon
estimates for the deeper soils layers and for the other
deposits is the lowest (<33%) since they are based on even
smaller data sets.
 5. The data reported in this study show that the
amount of carbon stored in northern circumpolar soils
and, thus, the potential for carbon-climate feedbacks from
this region, where the greatest global warming is predicted
to occur, has been hugely underestimated. This study more
than doubles the size of the carbon pools in the northern
circumpolar region, the area that can ultimately be exposed
to new environmental conditions more amenable to decom-
position of organic matter and, therefore, to its associated
release of carbon dioxide or methane.
Acknowledgments. This paper is a contribution to the activity
Vulnerabilities of the Carbon Cycle under the umbrella of the Global
Carbon Project of the Earth System Science Partnership. Funding for a
workshop series was provided by (1) the National Center for Ecological
Analysis and Synthesis, a center funded by NSF grant DEB-00-72909, the
University of California at Santa Barbara, and the State of California, and
(2) UNESCO through a grant to the Global Carbon Project (on behalf of
IGBP and WCRP). This paper is also a contribution to the activities of the
International Polar Year and the International Permafrost Association (IPA).
We thank Jerry Brown (past president of IPA) for his continuous support
and encouragement during the preparation of this paper and Chris Field for
his leadership in the NCEAS group. We would also like to thank Vladimir
Stolbovoi, Sergey Goryachkin, and Chien-Lu Ping for providing some of
the Russian and North American pedon data. Special thanks are also due to
David Swanson for translating and digitizing the Russian soil maps, which
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