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Boreal carbon loss due to poleward shift in low-carbon ecosystems


Climate change can be thought of in terms of geographical shifts in climate properties. Examples include assessments of shifts in habitat distributions1, of the movement needed to maintain constant temperature or precipitation2, and of the emergence and disappearance of climate zones3. Here I track the movement of analogue climates within climate models. From the model simulations, I define a set of vectors that link a historical reference climate for each location to the location in a changed climate whose seasonal temperature and precipitation cycles best match the reference climate. I use these vectors to calculate the change in vegetation carbon storage with climate change due to ecosystems following climate analogues. Comparing the derived carbon content change to direct carbon projections by coupled carbon–climate models reveals two regions of divergence. In the tropical forests, vector projections are fundamentally uncertain because of a lack of close climatic analogues. In the southern boreal forest, carbon losses are projected in the vector perspective because low-carbon ecosystems shift polewards. However, the majority of carbon–climate models—typically without explicit simulation of the disturbance and mortality processes behind such shifts—instead project vegetation carbon gains throughout the boreal region. Southern boreal carbon loss as a result of ecosystem shift is likely to offset carbon gains from northern boreal forest expansion.

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Figure 1: Climate analogue velocity vectors and statistical difference of analogue climates.
Figure 2: Lagrangian and ESM terrestrial carbon responses to climate change.


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This research was supported by the Director, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research of the US Department of Energy under Contract No. DE-AC02-05CH11231 as part of their Climate and Earth System Modelling Program. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups (listed in Tables 1 and 2 of this paper) for producing and making available their model output. Thanks to W. Collins, M. Torn, J. Chambers, W. Riley, P. Friedlingstein and I. Fung for helpful discussions, and to D. Ackerly and C. Jones for a critical review that improved the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Charles D. Koven.

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Koven, C. Boreal carbon loss due to poleward shift in low-carbon ecosystems. Nature Geosci 6, 452–456 (2013).

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