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Projected land photosynthesis constrained by changes in the seasonal cycle of atmospheric CO2

Nature volume 538, pages 499501 (27 October 2016) | Download Citation


Uncertainties in the response of vegetation to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations1,2 contribute to the large spread in projections of future climate change3,4. Climate–carbon cycle models generally agree that elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations will enhance terrestrial gross primary productivity (GPP). However, the magnitude of this CO2 fertilization effect varies from a 20 per cent to a 60 per cent increase in GPP for a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations in model studies5,6,7. Here we demonstrate emergent constraints8,9,10,11 on large-scale CO2 fertilization using observed changes in the amplitude of the atmospheric CO2 seasonal cycle that are thought to be the result of increasing terrestrial GPP12,13,14. Our comparison of atmospheric CO2 measurements from Point Barrow in Alaska and Cape Kumukahi in Hawaii with historical simulations of the latest climate–carbon cycle models demonstrates that the increase in the amplitude of the CO2 seasonal cycle at both measurement sites is consistent with increasing annual mean GPP, driven in part by climate warming, but with differences in CO2 fertilization controlling the spread among the model trends. As a result, the relationship between the amplitude of the CO2 seasonal cycle and the magnitude of CO2 fertilization of GPP is almost linear across the entire ensemble of models. When combined with the observed trends in the seasonal CO2 amplitude, these relationships lead to consistent emergent constraints on the CO2 fertilization of GPP. Overall, we estimate a GPP increase of 37 ± 9 per cent for high-latitude ecosystems and 32 ± 9 per cent for extratropical ecosystems under a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations on the basis of the Point Barrow and Cape Kumukahi records, respectively.

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This work was funded by the Horizon 2020 European Union’s Framework Programme for Research and Innovation under Grant Agreement No. 641816, the Coordinated Research in Earth Systems and Climate: Experiments, kNowledge, Dissemination and Outreach (CRESCENDO) project and the DLR Klimarelevanz von atmosphärischen Spurengasen, Aerosolen und Wolken: Auf dem Weg zu EarthCARE und MERLIN (KliSAW) project. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) Working Group on Coupled Modelling (WGCM), which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led the development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. We thank ETH Zurich for help in accessing data from the ESGF archive.

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  1. Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), Institut für Physik der Atmosphäre, Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany.

    • Sabrina Wenzel
    •  & Veronika Eyring
  2. College of Engineering, Mathematics & Physical Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4QE, UK.

    • Peter M. Cox
    •  & Pierre Friedlingstein


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S.W. led the study and analysis and drafted the manuscript with support from P.M.C. V.E. and P.F. contributed to the concept of the paper and the interpretation of the results. All co-authors commented on and provided edits to the original manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sabrina Wenzel.

Reviewer Information

Nature thanks V. Brovkin and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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