skip to main content

Title: Precipitation thresholds regulate net carbon exchange at the continental scale
Abstract

Understanding the sensitivity of ecosystem production and respiration to climate change is critical for predicting terrestrial carbon dynamics. Here we show that the primary control on the inter-annual variability of net ecosystem carbon exchange switches from production to respiration at a precipitation threshold between 750 and 950 mm yr−1in the contiguous United States. This precipitation threshold is evident across multiple datasets and scales of observation indicating that it is a robust result and provides a new scaling relationship between climate and carbon dynamics. However, this empirical precipitation threshold is not captured by dynamic global vegetation models, which tend to overestimate the sensitivity of production and underestimate the sensitivity of respiration to water availability in more mesic regions. Our results suggest that the short-term carbon balance of ecosystems may be more sensitive to respiration losses than previously thought and that model simulations may underestimate the positive carbon–climate feedbacks associated with respiration.

Authors:
; ; ; ; ; ;
Publication Date:
NSF-PAR ID:
10153735
Journal Name:
Nature Communications
Volume:
9
Issue:
1
ISSN:
2041-1723
Publisher:
Nature Publishing Group
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    An estimated 1700 Pg of carbon is frozen in the Arctic permafrost and the fate of this carbon is unclear because of the complex interaction of biophysical, ecological and biogeochemical processes that govern the Arctic carbon budget. Two key processes determining the region’s long-term carbon budget are: (a) carbon uptake through increased plant growth, and (b) carbon release through increased heterotrophic respiration (HR) due to warmer soils. Previous predictions for how these two opposing carbon fluxes may change in the future have varied greatly, indicating that improved understanding of these processes and their feedbacks is critical for advancing our predictive ability for the fate of Arctic peatlands. In this study, we implement and analyze a vertically-resolved model of peatland soil carbon into a cohort-based terrestrial biosphere model to improve our understanding of how on-going changes in climate are altering the Arctic carbon budget. A key feature of the formulation is that accumulation of peat within the soil column modifies its texture, hydraulic conductivity, and thermal conductivity, which, in turn influences resulting rates of HR within the soil column. Analysis of the model at three eddy covariance tower sites in the Alaskan tundra shows that the vertically-resolved soil column formulationmore »accurately captures the zero-curtain phenomenon, in which the temperature of soil layers remain at or near 0 °C during fall freezeback due to the release of latent heat, is critical to capturing observed patterns of wintertime respiration. We find that significant declines in net ecosystem productivity (NEP) occur starting in 2013 and that these declines are driven by increased HR arising from increased precipitation and warming. Sensitivity analyses indicate that the cumulative NEP over the decade responds strongly to the estimated soil carbon stock and more weakly to vegetation abundance at the beginning of the simulation.

    « less
  2. Abstract

    Tree die-off, driven by extreme drought and exacerbated by a warming climate, is occurring rapidly across every wooded continent—threatening carbon sinks and other ecosystem services provided by forests and woodlands. Forecasting the spatial patterns of tree die-off in response to drought is a priority for the management and conservation of forested ecosystems under projected future hotter and drier climates. Several thresholds derived from drought-metrics have been proposed to predict mortality ofPinus edulis,a model tree species in many studies of drought-induced tree die-off. To improve future capacity to forecast tree mortality, we used a severe drought as a natural experiment. We compared the ability of existing mortality thresholds derived from four drought metrics (the Forest Drought Severity Index (FDSI), the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index, and raw values of precipitation (PPT) and vapor pressure deficit, calculated using 4 km PRISM data) to predict areas ofP. edulisdie-off following an extreme drought in 2018 across the southwestern US. Using aerial detection surveys of tree mortality in combination with gridded climate data, we calculated the agreement between these four proposed thresholds and the presence and absence of regional-scale tree die-off using sensitivity, specificity, and the area under the curve (AUC). Overall, existing mortality thresholdsmore »tended to over predict the spatial extent of tree die-off across the landscape, yet some retain moderate skill in discriminating between areas that experienced and did not experience tree die-off. The simple PPT threshold had the highest AUC score (71%) as well as fair sensitivity and specificity, but the FDSI had the greatest sensitivity to die-off (85.9%). We highlight that empirically derived climate thresholds may be useful forecasting tools to identify vulnerable areas to drought induced die-off, allowing for targeted responses to future droughts and improved management of at-risk areas.

    « less
  3. Abstract

    Growing season length (GSL) is a key unifying concept in ecology that can be estimated from eddy covariance-derived estimates of net ecosystem production (NEP). Previous studies disagree on how increasing GSLs may affect NEP in evergreen coniferous forests, potentially due to the variety of methods used to quantify GSL from NEP. We calculated GSL and GSL-NEP regressions at eleven evergreen conifer sites across a broad climatic gradient in western North America using three common approaches: (1) variable length (3–7 days) regressions of day of year versus NEP, (2) a smoothed threshold approach, and (3) the carbon uptake period, followed by a new approach of a method-averaged ensemble. The GSL and the GSL-NEP relationship differed among methods, resulting in linear relationships with variable sign, slope, and statistical significance. For all combinations of sites and methods, the GSL explained between 6% and 82% of NEP withp-values ranging from 0.45 to < 0.01. These results demonstrate the variability among GSL methods and the importance of selecting an appropriate method to accurately project the ecosystem carbon cycling response to longer growing seasons in the future. To encourage this approach in future studies, we outline a series of best practices for GSL method selection depending onmore »research goals and the annual NEP dynamics of the study site(s). These results contribute to understanding growing season dynamics at ecosystem and continental scales and underscore the potential for methodological variability to influence forecasts of the evergreen conifer forest response to climate variability.

    « less
  4. Abstract

    Global change is influencing production and respiration in ecosystems across the globe. Lakes in particular are changing in response to climatic variability and cultural eutrophication, resulting in changes in ecosystem metabolism. Although the primary drivers of production and respiration such as the availability of nutrients, light, and carbon are well known, heterogeneity in hydrologic setting (for example, hydrological connectivity, morphometry, and residence) across and within regions may lead to highly variable responses to the same drivers of change, complicating our efforts to predict these responses. We explored how differences in hydrologic setting among lakes influenced spatial and inter annual variability in ecosystem metabolism, using high-frequency oxygen sensor data from 11 lakes over 8 years. Trends in mean metabolic rates of lakes generally followed gradients of nutrient and carbon concentrations, which were lowest in seepage lakes, followed by drainage lakes, and higher in bog lakes. We found that while ecosystem respiration (ER) was consistently higher in wet years in all hydrologic settings, gross primary production (GPP) only increased in tandem in drainage lakes. However, interannual rates of ER and GPP were relatively stable in drainage lakes, in contrast to seepage and bog lakes which had coefficients of variation in metabolism betweenmore »22–32%. We explored how the geospatial context of lakes, including hydrologic residence time, watershed area to lake area, and landscape position influenced the sensitivity of individual lake responses to climatic variation. We propose a conceptual framework to help steer future investigations of how hydrologic setting mediates the response of metabolism to climatic variability.

    « less
  5. Abstract

    River metabolism and, thus, carbon cycling are governed by gross primary production and ecosystem respiration. Traditionally river metabolism is derived from diel dissolved oxygen concentrations, which cannot resolve diel changes in ecosystem respiration. Here, we compare river metabolism derived from oxygen concentrations with estimates from stable oxygen isotope signatures (δ18O2) from 14 sites in rivers across three biomes using Bayesian inverse modeling. We find isotopically derived ecosystem respiration was greater in the day than night for all rivers (maximum change of 113 g O2 m−2 d−1, minimum of 1 g O2 m−2 d−1). Temperature (20 °C) normalized rates of ecosystem respiration and gross primary production were 1.1 to 87 and 1.5 to 22-fold higher when derived from oxygen isotope data compared to concentration data. Through accounting for diel variation in ecosystem respiration, our isotopically-derived rates suggest that ecosystem respiration and microbial carbon cycling in rivers is more rapid than predicted by traditional methods.