Letter | Published:

Large historical growth in global terrestrial gross primary production

Nature volume 544, pages 8487 (06 April 2017) | Download Citation


Growth in terrestrial gross primary production (GPP)—the amount of carbon dioxide that is ‘fixed’ into organic material through the photosynthesis of land plants—may provide a negative feedback for climate change1,2. It remains uncertain, however, to what extent biogeochemical processes can suppress global GPP growth3. As a consequence, modelling estimates of terrestrial carbon storage, and of feedbacks between the carbon cycle and climate, remain poorly constrained4. Here we present a global, measurement-based estimate of GPP growth during the twentieth century that is based on long-term atmospheric carbonyl sulfide (COS) records, derived from ice-core, firn and ambient air samples5. We interpret these records using a model that simulates changes in COS concentration according to changes in its sources and sinks—including a large sink that is related to GPP. We find that the observation-based COS record is most consistent with simulations of climate and the carbon cycle that assume large GPP growth during the twentieth century (31% ± 5% growth; mean ± 95% confidence interval). Although this COS analysis does not directly constrain models of future GPP growth, it does provide a global-scale benchmark for historical carbon-cycle simulations.

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We thank P. Friedlingstein for climate-model data; D. Streets for inventory suggestions; and P. Koch, C. Tebaldi, D. Lobell, P. Peylin, N. Petra, A. Wolf, J. Schnoor and C. Field for comments on our study. This work was supported by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Terrestrial Ecosystem Sciences (grant no. DE-SC0011999). S.A.M. acknowledges support in part from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Program Office’s AC4 program, and the firn-modelling expertise of M. Battle and M. Aydin. M.L. was supported by the Academy of Finland as part of the INQUIRE project (grant no. 267442). L.B. acknowledges support from H2020 project CRESCENDO (grant 641816). T.L. was supported by the European Research Council (ERC) early career starting grant SOLCA (grant no. 338264).

Author information

Author notes

    • T. Launois
    •  & L. Bopp

    Present address: INRA, UMR 1391 ISPA, 33140 Villenave d’Ornon, France (T.L.); Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique, IPSL, CNRS/ENS/UMPC/X, 75005 Paris, France (L.B.).


  1. Sierra Nevada Research Institute, University of California, Merced, California 95343, USA

    • J. E. Campbell
  2. Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • J. A. Berry
  3. Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA

    • U. Seibt
  4. Joint Global Change Research Institute, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, College Park, Maryland 20740, USA

    • S. J. Smith
  5. Earth System Research Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Boulder, Colorado 80305, USA

    • S. A. Montzka
  6. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, IPSL, CNRS/CEA/UVSQ, 91191 Gif sur Yvette, France.

    • T. Launois
    • , S. Belviso
    •  & L. Bopp
  7. Finnish Meteorological Institute, Helsinki 00560, Finland

    • M. Laine


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J.E.C. and J.A.B. designed the research. J.E.C. conducted all simulations and analysis, except ocean simulations, which were run by L.B., T.L. and S.B., Markov chain Monte Carlo scenarios, which were run by M.L., and relative uptake simulations, which were run by U.S. J.E.C. wrote the paper with input from all co-authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. E. Campbell.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks P. Friedlingstein, N. Gruber, D. Yakir and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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