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Foliar temperature acclimation reduces simulated carbon sensitivity to climate


Plant photosynthesis and respiration are the largest carbon fluxes between the terrestrial biosphere and the atmosphere1, and their parameterizations represent large sources of uncertainty in projections of land carbon uptake in Earth system models2,3 (ESMs). The incorporation of temperature acclimation of photosynthesis and foliar respiration, commonly observed processes, into ESMs has been proposed as a way to reduce this uncertainty2. Here we show that, across 15 flux tower sites spanning multiple biomes at various locations worldwide (10° S–67° N), acclimation parameterizations4,5 improve a model’s ability to reproduce observed net ecosystem exchange of CO2. This improvement is most notable in tropical biomes, where photosynthetic acclimation increased model performance by 36%. The consequences of acclimation for simulated terrestrial carbon uptake depend on the process, region and time period evaluated. Globally, including acclimation has a net effect of increasing carbon assimilation and storage, an effect that diminishes with time, but persists well into the future. Our results suggest that land models omitting foliar temperature acclimation are likely to overestimate the temperature sensitivity of terrestrial carbon exchange, thus biasing projections of future carbon storage and estimates of policy indicators such as the transient climate response to cumulative carbon emissions1.

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Figure 1: Model improvement by acclimation.
Figure 2: Global influence of acclimation on photosynthesis and foliar respiration.
Figure 3: Global maps of the influence of acclimation on each process at the ends of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Figure 4: Effect of acclimation on global simulated vegetation carbon in LM3.


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This project was supported by student exchange funding for N.G.S. provided by the INTERFACE RCN (NSF DEB-0955771), a Purdue Climate Change Research Center graduate fellowship to N.G.S., and a NASA Earth and Space Science fellowship to N.G.S. (NNX13AN65H). S.L.M. acknowledges support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric (US Department of Commerce) Grant NAOSOAR4320752. This work used eddy-covariance data acquired by the FLUXNET community and in particular by the following networks: AmeriFlux (US Department of Energy, Biological and Environmental Research, Terrestrial Carbon Program (DE-FG02-04ER63917 and DE-FG02-04ER63911)), CarboEuropeIP, Fluxnet-Canada (supported by CFCAS, NSERC, BIOCAP, Environment Canada, and NRCan), and LBA. We acknowledge the financial support to the eddy-covariance data harmonization provided by CarboEuropeIP, FAO-GTOS-TCO, iLEAPS, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, National Science Foundation, University of Tuscia, Université Laval, Environment Canada and US Department of Energy and the database development and technical support from Berkeley Water Center, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Microsoft Research eScience, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, University of California—Berkeley and the University of Virginia. This is publication 1605 of the Purdue Climate Change Research Center.

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N.G.S., S.L.M., E.S. and J.S.D. designed the study. N.G.S. and S.L.M. performed the model simulations and analyses. All authors contributed to the interpretation of the results and writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Nicholas G. Smith.

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Smith, N., Malyshev, S., Shevliakova, E. et al. Foliar temperature acclimation reduces simulated carbon sensitivity to climate. Nature Clim Change 6, 407–411 (2016).

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