The human footprint in the carbon cycle of temperate and boreal forests


Temperate and boreal forests in the Northern Hemisphere cover an area of about 2 × 107 square kilometres and act as a substantial carbon sink (0.6–0.7 petagrams of carbon per year)1. Although forest expansion following agricultural abandonment is certainly responsible for an important fraction of this carbon sink activity, the additional effects on the carbon balance of established forests of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, increasing temperatures, changes in management practices and nitrogen deposition are difficult to disentangle, despite an extensive network of measurement stations2,3. The relevance of this measurement effort has also been questioned4, because spot measurements fail to take into account the role of disturbances, either natural (fire, pests, windstorms) or anthropogenic (forest harvesting). Here we show that the temporal dynamics following stand-replacing disturbances do indeed account for a very large fraction of the overall variability in forest carbon sequestration. After the confounding effects of disturbance have been factored out, however, forest net carbon sequestration is found to be overwhelmingly driven by nitrogen deposition, largely the result of anthropogenic activities5. The effect is always positive over the range of nitrogen deposition covered by currently available data sets, casting doubts on the risk of widespread ecosystem nitrogen saturation6 under natural conditions. The results demonstrate that mankind is ultimately controlling the carbon balance of temperate and boreal forests, either directly (through forest management) or indirectly (through nitrogen deposition).

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Figure 1: Age-related dynamics of C balance components in forest ecosystems following disturbance.
Figure 2: Relationship between average NEP over the entire rotation and peak NEP in mature stands.
Figure 3: Environmental control of average C exchange over an entire rotation.


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This work was supported by the European Commission (General Directorate XII, CARBO-AGE project in the CARBOEUROPE cluster) and further supported by several national programmes. F.M. was also supported by the MIUR CarboItaly Project and by Società Produttori Sementi (Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio in Bologna) through the ‘Selvicoltura’ project.

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Correspondence to Federico Magnani.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information 1

This file contains Supplementary Figures S1-S8 with Legends and Supplementary Figure S1. The Supplementary Figures show N deposition maps; comparison of results based on to model-based interpolation with raw means and maxima; effects of N deposition when considering individual stands; effects of N deposition covariance with temperature, precipitation and site latitude. The Supplementary Table S1 shows detail of data source and integration procedures used in the computation of average C fluxes in forest chronosequences. (PDF 1611 kb)

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Magnani, F., Mencuccini, M., Borghetti, M. et al. The human footprint in the carbon cycle of temperate and boreal forests. Nature 447, 849–851 (2007).

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