Soil carbon sensitivity to temperature and carbon use efficiency compared across microbial-ecosystem models of varying complexity

Jianwei Li, Gangsheng Wang, Steven D. Allison, Melanie A. Mayes, Yiqi Luo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


Global ecosystem models may require microbial components to accurately predict feedbacks between climate warming and soil decomposition, but it is unclear what parameters and levels of complexity are ideal for scaling up to the globe. Here we conducted a model comparison using a conventional model with first-order decay and three microbial models of increasing complexity that simulate short- to long-term soil carbon dynamics. We focused on soil carbon responses to microbial carbon use efficiency (CUE) and temperature. Three scenarios were implemented in all models: constant CUE (held at 0.31), varied CUE (-0.016 °C-1), and 50 % acclimated CUE (-0.008 °C-1). Whereas the conventional model always showed soil carbon losses with increasing temperature, the microbial models each predicted a temperature threshold above which warming led to soil carbon gain. The location of this threshold depended on CUE scenario, with higher temperature thresholds under the acclimated and constant scenarios. This result suggests that the temperature sensitivity of CUE and the structure of the soil carbon model together regulate the long-term soil carbon response to warming. Equilibrium soil carbon stocks predicted by the microbial models were much less sensitive to changing inputs compared to the conventional model. Although many soil carbon dynamics were similar across microbial models, the most complex model showed less pronounced oscillations. Thus, adding model complexity (i.e. including enzyme pools) could improve the mechanistic representation of soil carbon dynamics during the transient phase in certain ecosystems. This study suggests that model structure and CUE parameterization should be carefully evaluated when scaling up microbial models to ecosystems and the globe.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)67-84
Number of pages18
Issue number1-3
StatePublished - Jun 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Carbon use efficiency
  • First-order decay model
  • Microbial-enzyme model
  • Soil organic matter decomposition
  • Temperature threshold
  • Warming

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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