Enhanced seasonal CO2 exchange caused by amplified plant productivity in northern ecosystems

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Science  12 Feb 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6274, pp. 696-699
DOI: 10.1126/science.aac4971

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Warming making bigger CO2 swings

The combined effects of climate change and vegetation dynamics at high northern latitudes have amplified the seasonal variation of atmospheric CO2 concentrations over the past half century. Forkel et al. combined observations and models to show that climate warming has caused the photosynthetic uptake of carbon to increase faster than its respiratory release from the terrestrial biosphere. This has increased the difference from summer to winter, as well as the latitudinal gradient. Because of the physiological limitations to carbon uptake by terrestrial vegetation, this negative feedback to warming in the boreal north and Arctic cannot continue indefinitely.

Science, this issue p. 696


Atmospheric monitoring of high northern latitudes (above 40°N) has shown an enhanced seasonal cycle of carbon dioxide (CO2) since the 1960s, but the underlying mechanisms are not yet fully understood. The much stronger increase in high latitudes relative to low ones suggests that northern ecosystems are experiencing large changes in vegetation and carbon cycle dynamics. We found that the latitudinal gradient of the increasing CO2 amplitude is mainly driven by positive trends in photosynthetic carbon uptake caused by recent climate change and mediated by changing vegetation cover in northern ecosystems. Our results underscore the importance of climate–vegetation–carbon cycle feedbacks at high latitudes; moreover, they indicate that in recent decades, photosynthetic carbon uptake has reacted much more strongly to warming than have carbon release processes.

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