Importance of vegetation dynamics for future terrestrial carbon cycling

Anders Ahlström, Jianyang Xia, Almut Arneth, Yiqi Luo, Benjamin Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

78 Scopus citations


Terrestrial ecosystems currently sequester about one third of anthropogenic CO2 emissions each year, an important ecosystem service that dampens climate change. The future fate of this net uptake of CO2 by land based ecosystems is highly uncertain. Most ecosystem models used to predict the future terrestrial carbon cycle share a common architecture, whereby carbon that enters the system as net primary production (NPP) is distributed to plant compartments, transferred to litter and soil through vegetation turnover and then re-emitted to the atmosphere in conjunction with soil decomposition. However, while all models represent the processes of NPP and soil decomposition, they vary greatly in their representations of vegetation turnover and the associated processes governing mortality, disturbance and biome shifts. Here we used a detailed second generation dynamic global vegetation model with advanced representation of vegetation growth and mortality, and the associated turnover. We apply an emulator that describes the carbon flows and pools exactly as in simulations with the full model. The emulator simulates ecosystem dynamics in response to 13 different climate or Earth system model simulations from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 ensemble under RCP8.5 radiative forcing. By exchanging carbon cycle processes between these 13 simulations we quantified the relative roles of three main driving processes of the carbon cycle; (I) NPP, (II) vegetation dynamics and turnover and (III) soil decomposition, in terms of their contribution to future carbon (C) uptake uncertainties among the ensemble of climate change scenarios. We found that NPP, vegetation turnover (including structural shifts, wild fires and mortality) and soil decomposition rates explained 49%, 17% and 33%, respectively, of uncertainties in modelled global C-uptake. Uncertainty due to vegetation turnover was further partitioned into stand-clearing disturbances (16%), wild fires (0%), stand dynamics (7%), reproduction (10%) and biome shifts (67%) globally. We conclude that while NPP and soil decomposition rates jointly account for 83% of future climate induced C-uptake uncertainties, vegetation turnover and structure, dominated by biome shifts, represent a significant fraction globally and regionally (tropical forests: 40%), strongly motivating their representation and analysis in future C-cycle studies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number054019
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • CMIP5
  • DGVM
  • carbon-cycle
  • climate change
  • vegetation dynamics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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