Large interannual variations in the measured growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) originate primarily from fluctuations in carbon uptake by land ecosystems1,2,3. It remains uncertain, however, to what extent temperature and water availability control the carbon balance of land ecosystems across spatial and temporal scales3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14. Here we use empirical models based on eddy covariance data15 and process-based models16,17 to investigate the effect of changes in temperature and water availability on gross primary productivity (GPP), terrestrial ecosystem respiration (TER) and net ecosystem exchange (NEE) at local and global scales. We find that water availability is the dominant driver of the local interannual variability in GPP and TER. To a lesser extent this is true also for NEE at the local scale, but when integrated globally, temporal NEE variability is mostly driven by temperature fluctuations. We suggest that this apparent paradox can be explained by two compensatory water effects. Temporal water-driven GPP and TER variations compensate locally, dampening water-driven NEE variability. Spatial water availability anomalies also compensate, leaving a dominant temperature signal in the year-to-year fluctuations of the land carbon sink. These findings help to reconcile seemingly contradictory reports regarding the importance of temperature and water in controlling the interannual variability of the terrestrial carbon balance3,4,5,6,9,11,12,14. Our study indicates that spatial climate covariation drives the global carbon cycle response.

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We thank P. Peylin for providing RECCAP inversion results. We also thank P. Bodesheim for help with the mathematical notations, J. Nelson for proofreading the Supplementary Information, S. Schott for help with artwork, and G. Boenisch, L. Maack and P. Koch for help archiving the FLUXCOM data. M.J., M.R. and D.P. acknowledge funding from the European Union (EU) FP7 project GEOCARBON (grant number 283080) and the EU H2020 BACI project (grant number 640176). F.G. and M.R. acknowledge the European Space Agency for funding the ‘Coupled Biosphere–Atmosphere virtual LABoratory’ (CAB-LAB). S.Z. acknowledges support from the European Research Council (ERC) under the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (QUINCY; grant number 647204). A. Arneth acknowledges support from the EU FP7 project LUC4C (grant number 603542). C.R.S. was supported by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) grants NNX12AK12G, NNX12AP74G, NNX10AG01A and NNX11AO08A. P.C. acknowledges support from the ERC Synergy grant ERC-2013-SyG-610028 IMBALANCE-P. K.I. acknowledges support from the Environment Research and Technology Development Funds (2-1401) from the Ministry of the Environment of Japan. S.S. acknowledges the support of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) South AMerican Biomass Burning Analysis (SAMBBA) project (grant code NE/J010057/1). C.H. is grateful for support from the NERC CEH National Capability fund. A. Ahlström acknowledges support from The Royal Physiographic Society in Lund (Birgit and Hellmuth Hertz’ Foundation) and the Swedish Research Council (637-2014-6895). G.C.-V. was supported by the EU under ERC consolidator grant SEDAL-647423.

Author information


  1. Department of Biogeochemical Integration, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, 07745 Jena, Germany

    • Martin Jung
    • , Markus Reichstein
    • , Fabian Gans
    • , Ulrich Weber
    •  & Sönke Zaehle
  2. Michael-Stifel-Center Jena for Data-driven and Simulation Science, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, 07743 Jena, Germany

    • Markus Reichstein
    •  & Sönke Zaehle
  3. Woods Hole Research Center, 149 Woods Hole Road, Falmouth, Massachusetts 02540, USA

    • Christopher R. Schwalm
  4. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Wallingford, Oxfordshire OX10 8BB, UK

    • Chris Huntingford
  5. College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4QF, UK

    • Stephen Sitch
  6. Department of Earth System Science, School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Anders Ahlström
  7. Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University, 223 62 Lund, Sweden

    • Anders Ahlström
  8. Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research, 82467 Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

    • Almut Arneth
  9. Image Processing Laboratory, Universitat de València, Catedrático José Beltrán, Paterna 46980, València, Spain

    • Gustau Camps-Valls
  10. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, CEA CNRS UVSQ, 91191 Gif-sur-Yvette, France

    • Philippe Ciais
    •  & Nicolas Viovy
  11. College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4QE, UK

    • Pierre Friedlingstein
  12. Department of Environment Geochemical Cycle Research, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, 3173-25, Showa-machi, Kanazawa-ku, Yokohama 236-0001, Japan

    • Kazuhito Ichii
  13. Center for Global Environmental Research, National Institute for Environmental Studies, 16-2 Onogawa, Tsukuba, 305-8506, Japan

    • Kazuhito Ichii
  14. Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA

    • Atul K. Jain
  15. Global Environment Program, The Institute of Applied Energy, Tokyo 105-0003, Japan

    • Etsushi Kato
  16. Department for Innovation in Biological, Agro-food and Forest systems, University of Tuscia, 01100 Viterbo, Italy

    • Dario Papale
    • , Botond Raduly
    •  & Gianluca Tramontana
  17. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Biospheric Science Laboratory, Greenbelt, Maryland 20771, USA

    • Ben Poulter
  18. Department of Bioengineering, Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania, 530104 M-Ciuc, Romania

    • Botond Raduly
  19. Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Department of Biogeochemical Systems, 07745 Jena, Germany

    • Christian Rödenbeck
  20. CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, PMB #1, Aspendale, Victoria 3195, Australia

    • Ying-Ping Wang
  21. Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing 100029, China

    • Ning Zeng
  22. Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland 20742, USA

    • Ning Zeng


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M.J. and M.R. designed the analysis. M.J. carried out the analysis and wrote the manuscript with contributions from all authors. M.J., C.R.S., G.C.-V., F.G., K.I., D.P., B.R., G.T. and U.W. contributed to FLUXCOM results. S.S., P.F., C.H., A. Ahlström, A. Arneth, P.C., A.K.J., E.K., B.P., N.V., Y.-P.W. and N.Z. contributed to TRENDY results.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Martin Jung.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks C. Funk and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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