Permafrost carbon release is potentially the largest terrestrial feedback contributing to climate change. However, the changes in carbon release caused by the abrupt thawing of permafrost and their controlling factors remain largely unknown. Here, we measured soil organic carbon (SOC), total nitrogen (TN) concentrations, and carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) emission rates among seven permafrost collapse features over 3 years in the northern Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (QTP). The results showed soil carbon and nitrogen loss caused by permafrost collapse ranged from − 12% to 28% and − 1% to 38%, respectively. We found there was a nonlinear relationship between soil carbon loss and permafrost collapse chronosequence. Permafrost collapse significantly reduced ecosystem respiration (Reco) and weakened carbon sinks. The net ecosystem exchange (NEE) decreased from − 2.59 to − 0.21 µmol CO2 m−2 s−1. The Reco and NEE values showed no significant changes over time after the initial permafrost collapse. In contrast, the CH4 fluxes increased over time following permafrost collapse, and the CH4 fluxes significantly increased 2 to 10 times in the exposed area compared with that in the control area. Soil temperature, moisture, and nutrient availability exerted the most controls over the carbon emission during permafrost collapse. This study provides the patterns of carbon loss and emissions in different permafrost collapse landscapes, which will provide deep insights and reliable data for future prediction of the abrupt thawing of permafrost-carbon feedback.

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