Carbon budget of the Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research site: pattern, process, and response to global change

Adrien C. Finzi, Marc André Giasson, Audrey A. Barker Plotkin, John D. Aber, Emery R. Boose, Eric A. Davidson, Michael C. Dietze, Aaron M. Ellison, Serita D. Frey, Evan Goldman, Trevor F. Keenan, Jerry M. Melillo, J. William Munger, Knute J. Nadelhoffer, Scott V. Ollinger, David A. Orwig, Neil Pederson, Andrew D. Richardson, Kathleen Savage, Jianwu TangJonathan R. Thompson, Christopher A. Williams, Steven C. Wofsy, Zaixing Zhou, David R. Foster

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


How, where, and why carbon (C) moves into and out of an ecosystem through time are long-standing questions in biogeochemistry. Here, we bring together hundreds of thousands of C-cycle observations at the Harvard Forest in central Massachusetts, USA, a mid-latitude landscape dominated by 80–120-yr-old closed-canopy forests. These data answered four questions: (1) where and how much C is presently stored in dominant forest types; (2) what are current rates of C accrual and loss; (3) what biotic and abiotic factors contribute to variability in these rates; and (4) how has climate change affected the forest’s C cycle? Harvard Forest is an active C sink resulting from forest regrowth following land abandonment. Soil and tree biomass comprise nearly equal portions of existing C stocks. Net primary production (NPP) averaged 680–750 g C·m−2·yr−1; belowground NPP contributed 38–47% of the total, but with large uncertainty. Mineral soil C measured in the same inventory plots in 1992 and 2013 was too heterogeneous to detect change in soil-C pools; however, radiocarbon data suggest a small but persistent sink of 10–30 g C·m−2·yr−1. Net ecosystem production (NEP) in hardwood stands averaged ~300 g C·m−2·yr−1. NEP in hemlock-dominated forests averaged ~450 g C·m−2·yr−1 until infestation by the hemlock woolly adelgid turned these stands into a net C source. Since 2000, NPP has increased by 26%. For the period 1992–2015, NEP increased 93%. The increase in mean annual temperature and growing season length alone accounted for ~30% of the increase in productivity. Interannual variations in GPP and NEP were also correlated with increases in red oak biomass, forest leaf area, and canopy-scale light-use efficiency. Compared to long-term global change experiments at the Harvard Forest, the C sink in regrowing biomass equaled or exceeded C cycle modifications imposed by soil warming, N saturation, and hemlock removal. Results of this synthesis and comparison to simulation models suggest that forests across the region are likely to accrue C for decades to come but may be disrupted if the frequency or severity of biotic and abiotic disturbances increases.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere01423
JournalEcological Monographs
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1 2020


  • belowground production
  • carbon cycling
  • climate change
  • disturbance
  • ecosystem ecology
  • eddy covariance
  • forest ecosystems
  • gross primary production
  • long-term ecological research
  • net primary production
  • permanent plots

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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