Nutrient availability as the key regulator of global forest carbon balance

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  • An Addendum to this article was published on 25 June 2014
  • A Corrigendum to this article was published on 25 March 2015

Abstract

Forests strongly affect climate through the exchange of large amounts of atmospheric CO2 (ref. 1). The main drivers of spatial variability in net ecosystem production (NEP) on a global scale are, however, poorly known. As increasing nutrient availability increases the production of biomass per unit of photosynthesis2 and reduces heterotrophic3 respiration in forests, we expected nutrients to determine carbon sequestration in forests. Our synthesis study of 92 forests in different climate zones revealed that nutrient availability indeed plays a crucial role in determining NEP and ecosystem carbon-use efficiency (CUEe; that is, the ratio of NEP to gross primary production (GPP)). Forests with high GPP exhibited high NEP only in nutrient-rich forests (CUEe = 33 ± 4%; mean ± s.e.m.). In nutrient-poor forests, a much larger proportion of GPP was released through ecosystem respiration, resulting in lower CUEe (6 ± 4%). Our finding that nutrient availability exerts a stronger control on NEP than on carbon input (GPP) conflicts with assumptions of nearly all global coupled carbon cycle–climate models, which assume that carbon inputs through photosynthesis drive biomass production and carbon sequestration. An improved global understanding of nutrient availability would therefore greatly improve carbon cycle modelling and should become a critical focus for future research.

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Figure 1: Only nutrient-rich forests substantially increase carbon sequestration with increasing carbon uptake.
Figure 2: The coupling between ecosystem respiration (Re) and gross primary production (GPP) is weak in nutrient-rich forests and very strong in nutrient-poor forests.
Figure 3: Relative contribution of predictor variables in the model explaining variability in net ecosystem production (NEP).

Change history

  • 28 May 2014

    In the version of this Letter originally published, the following text was omitted from the acknowledgements section: 'We also thank all site investigators, their funding agencies, the various regional flux networks (Afriflux, AmeriFlux, AsiaFlux, CarboAfrica, CarboEurope-IP, ChinaFlux, Fluxnet-Canada, KoFlux, LBA, NECC, OzFlux, TCOS-Siberia, USCCC), the Office of Science (BER) and US Department of Energy (for funding the development of measurement and data submission protocols), and the Fluxnet project, whose work and support is essential for obtaining the measurements without which the type of integrated analyses conducted in this study would not be possible.' This has been corrected in the online versions of the Letter.

  • 13 March 2015

    In the version of this Letter originally published, in the final paragraph, the section of text including 'Earth system models should … nutrient cycling)' was misleading and should have been: "Models simulating the dynamics of the terrestrial biosphere currently consider the effects of nitrogen on vegetation and soils25,26 but they still do not consider the effects of other nutrients such as phosphorus or potassium. Future models should consider the interactions of nitrogen as well as these other nutrients with the entire forest carbon balance. The relationship between GPP and NEP appears to be so strongly controlled by the nutrient status of the forest that terrestrial biosphere models may be unable to accurately predict the carbon balance of forest ecosystems without information on background nutrient availability27—soil nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, pH—and on changes in soil and plant nutrient cycling resulting from human activities (such as nitrogen deposition, climate change and elevated CO2)." To accommodate these changes, the original ref. 27 (W. De Vries and M. Posch, M. Environ. Pollut. 159, 2289-2299; 2011) was removed and the remaining references renumbered. The original references numbered 31–33 have been moved to the Supplementary Information, as they are uncited in the main text.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the Spanish Government projects CGL2010-17172 and Consolider Ingenio Montes (CSD2008-00040), by the Catalan Government Grants SGR 2009-458 and FI-2013 and by the European Research Council Synergy grant 610028, P-IMBALANCE. S.V. and M.C. are postdoctoral fellows of the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO). S.L. was financially supported by ERC Starting Grant 242564 and received additional financial support from FWO Vlaanderen. We appreciate the financial support of the GHG-Europe project. We also thank all site investigators, their funding agencies, the various regional flux networks (Afriflux, AmeriFlux, AsiaFlux, CarboAfrica, CarboEurope-IP, ChinaFlux, Fluxnet-Canada, KoFlux, LBA, NECC, OzFlux, TCOS-Siberia, USCCC), the Office of Science (BER) and US Department of Energy (for funding the development of measurement and data submission protocols), and the Fluxnet project, whose work and support is essential for obtaining the measurements without which the type of integrated analyses conducted in this study would not be possible.

Author information

M.F-M., S.V., I.A.J. and J.P. conceived the paper and analysed the data. All authors contributed substantially to the discussion and the text writing.

Correspondence to M. Fernández-Martínez.

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Fernández-Martínez, M., Vicca, S., Janssens, I. et al. Nutrient availability as the key regulator of global forest carbon balance. Nature Clim Change 4, 471–476 (2014) doi:10.1038/nclimate2177

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