The dominant role of semi-arid ecosystems in the trend and variability of the land CO2 sink

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Science  22 May 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6237, pp. 895-899
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa1668

The difference is found at the margins

The terrestrial biosphere absorbs about a quarter of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, but the amount that they take up varies from year to year. Why? Combining models and observations, Ahlström et al. found that marginal ecosystems—semiarid savannas and low-latitude shrublands—are responsible for most of the variability. Biological productivity in these semiarid regions is water-limited and strongly associated with variations in precipitation, unlike wetter tropical areas. Understanding carbon uptake by these marginal lands may help to improve predictions of variations in the global carbon cycle.

Science, this issue p. 895


The growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations since industrialization is characterized by large interannual variability, mostly resulting from variability in CO2 uptake by terrestrial ecosystems (typically termed carbon sink). However, the contributions of regional ecosystems to that variability are not well known. Using an ensemble of ecosystem and land-surface models and an empirical observation-based product of global gross primary production, we show that the mean sink, trend, and interannual variability in CO2 uptake by terrestrial ecosystems are dominated by distinct biogeographic regions. Whereas the mean sink is dominated by highly productive lands (mainly tropical forests), the trend and interannual variability of the sink are dominated by semi-arid ecosystems whose carbon balance is strongly associated with circulation-driven variations in both precipitation and temperature.

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