Assessing carbon storage capacity and saturation across six central US grasslands using data-model integration

Kevin R. Wilcox, Scott L. Collins, Alan K. Knapp, William Pockman, Zheng Shi, Melinda D. Smith, Yiqi Luo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Future global changes will impact carbon (C) fluxes and pools in most terrestrial ecosystems and the feedback of terrestrial carbon cycling to atmospheric CO2. Determining the vulnerability of C in ecosystems to future environmental change is thus vital for targeted land management and policy. The C capacity of an ecosystem is a function of its C inputs (e.g., net primary productivity - NPP) and how long C remains in the system before being respired back to the atmosphere. The proportion of C capacity currently stored by an ecosystem (i.e., its C saturation) provides information about the potential for long-term C pools to be altered by environmental and land management regimes. We estimated C capacity, C saturation, NPP, and ecosystem C residence time in six US grasslands spanning temperature and precipitation gradients by integrating high temporal resolution C pool and flux data with a process-based C model. As expected, NPP across grasslands was strongly correlated with mean annual precipitation (MAP), yet C residence time was not related to MAP or mean annual temperature (MAT). We link soil temperature, soil moisture, and inherent C turnover rates (potentially due to microbial function and tissue quality) as determinants of carbon residence time. Overall, we found that intermediates between extremes in moisture and temperature had low C saturation, indicating that C in these grasslands may trend upwards and be buffered against global change impacts. Hot and dry grasslands had greatest C saturation due to both small C inputs through NPP and high C turnover rates during soil moisture conditions favorable for microbial activity. Additionally, leaching of soil C during monsoon events may lead to C loss. C saturation was also high in tallgrass prairie due to frequent fire that reduced inputs of aboveground plant material. Accordingly, we suggest that both hot, dry ecosystems and those frequently disturbed should be subject to careful land management and policy decisions to prevent losses of C stored in these systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2707-2725
Number of pages19
Issue number13
StatePublished - Jul 12 2023
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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