A growing literature is reporting on how the terrestrial carbon cycle is experiencing year-to-year variability because of climate anomalies and trends caused by global change. As CO2 concentration records in the atmosphere exceed 50 years and as satellite records reach over 30 years in length, we are becoming better able to address carbon cycle variability and trends. Here we review how variable the carbon cycle is, how large the trends in its gross and net fluxes are, and how well the signal can be separated from noise. We explore mechanisms that explain year-to-year variability and trends by deconstructing the global carbon budget.
The CO2 concentration record is detecting a significant increase in the seasonal amplitude between 1958 and now. Inferential methods provide a variety of explanations for this result, but a conclusive attribution remains elusive. Scientists have reported that this trend is a consequence of the greening of the biosphere, stronger northern latitude photosynthesis, more photosynthesis by semi-arid ecosystems, agriculture and the green revolution, tropical temperature anomalies, or increased winter respiration.
At the global scale, variability in the terrestrial carbon cycle can be due to changes in constituent fluxes, gross primary productivity, plant respiration and heterotrophic (microbial) respiration, and losses due to fire, land use change, soil erosion, or harvesting. It remains controversial whether or not there is a significant trend in global primary productivity (due to rising CO2, temperature, nitrogen deposition, changing land use, and preponderance of wet and dry regions). The degree to which year-to-year variability in temperature and precipitation anomalies affect global primary productivity also remains uncertain. For perspective, interannual variability in global gross primary productivity is relatively small (on the order of 2 Pg-C y-1) with respect to a large and uncertain background (123 +/- 4 Pg-C y-1), and detected trends in global primary productivity are even smaller (33 Tg-C y-2). Yet residual carbon balance methods infer that the terrestrial biosphere is experiencing a significant and growing carbon sink. Possible explanations for this large and growing net land sink include roles of land use change and greening of the land, regional enhancement of photosynthesis, and down regulation of plant and soil respiration with warming temperatures. Longer time series of variables needed to provide top-down and bottom-up assessments of the carbon cycle are needed to resolve these pressing and unresolved issues regarding how, why, and at what rates gross and net carbon fluxes are changing.
Corresponding author: Dennis Baldocchi
How to cite: Baldocchi D, Ryu Y and Keenan T. Terrestrial Carbon Cycle Variability [version 1; referees: 2 approved]. F1000Research 2016, 5(F1000 Faculty Rev):2371 (doi: 10.12688/f1000research.8962.1)