Global Convergence in the Temperature Sensitivity of Respiration at Ecosystem Level

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Science  13 Aug 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5993, pp. 838-840
DOI: 10.1126/science.1189587

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Carbon Cycle and Climate Change

As climate change accelerates, it is important to know the likely impact of climate change on the carbon cycle (see the Perspective by Reich). Gross primary production (GPP) is a measure of the amount of CO2 removed from the atmosphere every year to fuel photosynthesis. Beer et al. (p. 834, published online 5 July) used a combination of observation and calculation to estimate that the total GPP by terrestrial plants is around 122 billion tons per year; in comparison, burning fossil fuels emits about 7 billion tons annually. Thirty-two percent of this uptake occurs in tropical forests, and precipitation controls carbon uptake in more than 40% of vegetated land. The temperature sensitivity (Q10) of ecosystem respiratory processes is a key determinant of the interaction between climate and the carbon cycle. Mahecha et al. (p. 838, published online 5 July) now show that the Q10 of ecosystem respiration is invariant with respect to mean annual temperature, independent of the analyzed ecosystem type, with a global mean value for Q10 of 1.6. This level of temperature sensitivity suggests a less-pronounced climate sensitivity of the carbon cycle than assumed by recent climate models.


The respiratory release of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the land surface is a major flux in the global carbon cycle, antipodal to photosynthetic CO2 uptake. Understanding the sensitivity of respiratory processes to temperature is central for quantifying the climate–carbon cycle feedback. We approximated the sensitivity of terrestrial ecosystem respiration to air temperature (Q10) across 60 FLUXNET sites with the use of a methodology that circumvents confounding effects. Contrary to previous findings, our results suggest that Q10 is independent of mean annual temperature, does not differ among biomes, and is confined to values around 1.4 ± 0.1. The strong relation between photosynthesis and respiration, by contrast, is highly variable among sites. The results may partly explain a less pronounced climate–carbon cycle feedback than suggested by current carbon cycle climate models.

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