Press release

The Arctic tundra, CO2 source or sink?


An aerial view of the mountain ranges between Longyearbyean and Ny Alesund on Spitsbergen Island (Credits: A. Provenzale)
An aerial view of the mountain ranges between Longyearbyean and Ny Alesund on Spitsbergen Island (Credits: A. Provenzale)

A research team from Cnr-Igg has identified the role of environmental and vegetation variables in driving CO2 fluxes in the Arctic tundra. The results, based on measurement campaigns, data analysis and mathematical models, are now published in Scientific Reports


Not just solar radiation and temperature. In the Arctic tundra, soil moisture and the abundance and type of vegetation cover control CO2 exchanges between soil, vegetation and the atmosphere. This is the conclusion of a research team from the Institute of Geosciences and Earth Resources of the National Research Council of Italy (Cnr-Igg), published in the journal Scientific Reports in January.

The researchers performed and then analysed measurements of carbon dioxide fluxes in the Arctic tundra on the island of Spitzbergen (Norway), in the Bayelva catchment, not far from the Cnr “Dirigibile Italia” Arctic station, and identified the main climatic and ecological variables such fluxes depend on.

“Our study shows that temperature and solar radiation are not enough to explain the magnitude of CO2 fluxes,” explains Cnr-Igg researcher Marta Magnani, corresponding author of the paper, who took part in the measurement campaigns and developed a mathematical model of carbon dioxide fluxes during her PhD. “Soil moisture and the abundance and type of vegetation play a major role. Climate change in the Arctic could lead to important and complex changes in the carbon fluxes balance. In fact, rising temperatures favour more intense respiration from vegetation and soil, increasing CO2 release, but the lengthening of the growing season and a possible expansion of species with higher photosynthetic capacity could also favour larger uptake of atmospheric CO2 and thus a decrease in its atmospheric concentration. Whether the Arctic tundra will be a CO2 source or sink will depend on which of these two processes becomes dominant.”

“The data were obtained using a portable spectrophotometer called IRGA (Infra-Red Gas Analyser), which, thanks to the possibility of measuring gas fluxes at different locations in the tundra, allowed us to analyse the role of different plant species and to compare the fluxes of vascular plants (i.e. plants having water conducting tissues), with those of mosses and lichens,” continue Mariasilvia Giamberini and Ilaria Baneschi of Cnr-Igg, who spent several months in the Arctic between 2018 and 2021, also playing the role of station leader at the Italian base.

“Studies like ours are needed to explore the detailed impacts of global warming, helping to develop predictive models that could be applied across large areas of the Arctic tundra and allow to estimate how the net balance (higher emissions or local absorption of CO2) will be controlled by the changing dynamics of the Arctic ecosystem,” points out Antonello Provenzale, director of Cnr-Igg.

The next steps of the research group will be to analyse the winter dynamics of CO2 fluxes in the Arctic, including measurements in the snowpack, and to use satellite data combined with ecosystem models, to extend the estimate of the potential changes to wider regions of the tundra. “Our group is especially interested in changes in the 'Critical Zone', the thin living surface layer that includes soil, vegetation, microbiota, soil fauna and surface and groundwater, that supports the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems. For this reason, we study the dynamics of the Critical zone in extreme environments such as the Arctic, the high Alps and volcanic areas such as the slopes of Mount Etna,” concludes Provenzale.


Per informazioni:
Marta Magnani
Cnr - Igg
Antonello Provenzale, Cnr-Igg director, e-mail:

Ufficio stampa:
Cecilia Migali
Cnr Press Office

Responsabile Unità Ufficio stampa:
Marco Ferrazzoli
06 4993 3383

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