Letter | Published:

Asymmetric effects of daytime and night-time warming on Northern Hemisphere vegetation

Nature volume 501, pages 8892 (05 September 2013) | Download Citation



Temperature data over the past five decades show faster warming of the global land surface during the night than during the day1. This asymmetric warming is expected to affect carbon assimilation and consumption in plants, because photosynthesis in most plants occurs during daytime and is more sensitive to the maximum daily temperature, Tmax, whereas plant respiration occurs throughout the day2 and is therefore influenced by both Tmax and the minimum daily temperature, Tmin. Most studies of the response of terrestrial ecosystems to climate warming, however, ignore this asymmetric forcing effect on vegetation growth and carbon dioxide (CO2) fluxes3,4,5,6. Here we analyse the interannual covariations of the satellite-derived normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI, an indicator of vegetation greenness) with Tmax and Tmin over the Northern Hemisphere. After removing the correlation between Tmax and Tmin, we find that the partial correlation between Tmax and NDVI is positive in most wet and cool ecosystems over boreal regions, but negative in dry temperate regions. In contrast, the partial correlation between Tmin and NDVI is negative in boreal regions, and exhibits a more complex behaviour in dry temperate regions. We detect similar patterns in terrestrial net CO2 exchange maps obtained from a global atmospheric inversion model. Additional analysis of the long-term atmospheric CO2 concentration record of the station Point Barrow in Alaska suggests that the peak-to-peak amplitude of CO2 increased by 23 ± 11% for a +1 °C anomaly in Tmax from May to September over lands north of 51° N, but decreased by 28 ± 14% for a +1 °C anomaly in Tmin. These lines of evidence suggest that asymmetric diurnal warming, a process that is currently not taken into account in many global carbon cycle models, leads to a divergent response of Northern Hemisphere vegetation growth and carbon sequestration to rising temperatures.

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This study was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant numbers 41125004 and 31021001), the National Basic Research Program of China (grant numbers 2010CB950601 and 2013CB956303), the Foundation for Sino-EU Research Cooperation of the Ministry of Science and Technology of China (grant number 1003), and a Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection Grant (number 201209031). We also acknowledge the GLOBALVIEW-CO2 project based at NOAA ESRL. S.V. is a postdoctoral research associate of the Fund for Scientific Research (Flanders).

Author information


  1. Sino-French Institute for Earth System Science, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China

    • Shushi Peng
    •  & Shilong Piao
  2. Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100085, China

    • Shilong Piao
    • , Gengxin Zhang
    •  & Shiping Wang
  3. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement (LSCE), UMR CEA-CNRS, Batîment 709, CE, L’Orme des Merisiers, F-91191 Gif-sur-Yvette, France

    • Philippe Ciais
    •  & Frédéric Chevallier
  4. Department of Earth and Environment, Boston University, 675 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA

    • Ranga B. Myneni
  5. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544-1003, USA

    • Anping Chen
  6. Department of Earth Sciences, VU University Amsterdam, Boelelaan 1085, 1081 HV, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

    • Albertus J. Dolman
  7. Department of Biology, University of Antwerp, Universiteitsplein 1, 2610 Wilrijk, Belgium

    • Ivan A. Janssens
    •  & Sara Vicca
  8. Centre de Recerca Ecològica i Aplicacions Forestals (CREAF), Cerdanyola del Valles, Barcelona 08193, Catalonia, Spain

    • Josep Peñuelas
  9. Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), Global Ecology Unit CREAF-CEAB-CSIC-UAB, Cerdanyola del Valles, Barcelona 08193, Catalonia, Spain

    • Josep Peñuelas
  10. College of Life Sciences, Henan University, Kaifeng 475001, China

    • Shiqiang Wan
  11. Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School, Shenzhen 518055, China

    • Hui Zeng


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S. Piao, S. Peng and H.Z. designed the research. S. Peng performed analysis and calculations. S. Piao, P.C., A.C. and S. Peng drafted the paper. R.B.M. provided the remotely sensed NDVI data and contributed to the text. F.C. provided the atmospheric inverse model estimated carbon flux and contributed to the text. A.J.D. provided the remotely sensed soil moisture data and contributed to the text. I.A.J., J.P., G.Z., S.V., S. Wan, S. Wang and H.Z. contributed to the interpretation of the results and to the text.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Shilong Piao or Hui Zeng.

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    Supplementary Information

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