Evolution of Uncertainty in Terrestrial Carbon Storage in Earth System Models from CMIP5 to CMIP6

Ning Wei, Jianyang Xia, Jian Zhou, Lifen Jiang, Erqian Cui, Jiaye Ping, Yiqi Luo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


The spatial and temporal variations in terrestrial carbon storage play a pivotal role in regulating future climate change. However, Earth system models (ESMs), which have coupled the terrestrial biosphere and atmosphere, show great uncertainty in simulating the global land carbon storage. Here, based on multiple global datasets and a traceability analysis, we diagnosed the uncertainty source of terrestrial carbon storage in 22 ESMs that participated in phases 5 and 6 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5 and CMIP6). The modeled global terrestrial carbon storage has converged among ESMs from CMIP5 (1936.9 6 739.3 PgC) to CMIP6 (1774.4 6 439.0 PgC) but is persistently lower than the observation-based estimates (2285 6 669 PgC). By further decomposing terrestrial carbon storage into net primary production (NPP) and ecosystem carbon residence time (tE), we found that the decreased intermodel spread in land carbon storage primarily resulted from more accurate simulations on NPP among ESMs from CMIP5 to CMIP6. The persistent underestimation of land carbon storage was caused by the biased tE. In CMIP5 and CMIP6, the modeled tE was far shorter than the observation-based estimates. The potential reasons for the biased tE could be the lack of or incomplete representation of nutrient limitation, vertical soil biogeochemistry, and the permafrost carbon cycle. Moreover, the modeled tE became the key driver for the intermodel spread in global land carbon storage in CMIP6. Overall, our study indicates that CMIP6 models have greatly improved the terrestrial carbon cycle, with a decreased model spread in global terrestrial carbon storage and less uncertain productivity. However, more efforts are needed to understand and reduce the persistent data–model disagreement on carbon storage and residence time in the terrestrial biosphere.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5483-5499
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number17
StatePublished - Sep 1 2022


  • Ecological models
  • Model comparison
  • Model evaluation/performance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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