Permafrost soils store large amounts of carbon. Warming can result in carbon release from thawing permafrost, but it can also lead to enhanced primary production, which can increase soil carbon stocks. The balance of these fluxes determines the nature of the permafrost feedback to warming. Here we assessed decadal changes in soil organic carbon stocks in the active layer—the uppermost 30 cm—of permafrost soils across Tibetan alpine regions, based on repeated soil carbon measurements in the early 2000s and 2010s at the same sites. We observed an overall accumulation of soil organic carbon irrespective of vegetation type, with a mean rate of 28.0 g C m−2 yr−1 across Tibetan permafrost regions. This soil organic carbon accrual occurred only in the subsurface soil, between depths of 10 and 30 cm, mainly induced by an increase of soil organic carbon concentrations. We conclude that the upper active layer of Tibetan alpine permafrost currently represents a substantial regional soil carbon sink in a warming climate, implying that carbon losses of deeper and older permafrost carbon might be offset by increases in upper-active-layer soil organic carbon stocks, which probably results from enhanced vegetation growth.
We thank the members of Peking University Sampling Teams (2001–2004) and IBCAS Sampling Teams (2013–2014) for assistance in field data collection. We also thank the Forestry Bureau of Qinghai Province and the Forestry Bureau of Tibet Autonomous Region for their permission and assistance during the sampling process. This study was financially supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31670482 and 31322011), National Basic Research Program of China on Global Change (2014CB954001 and 2015CB954201), Chinese Academy of Sciences-Peking University Pioneer Cooperation Team, and the Thousand Young Talents Program.