Ecosystem functioning is enveloped by hydrometeorological variability

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Terrestrial ecosystem processes, and the associated vegetation carbon dynamics, respond differently to hydrometeorological variability across timescales, and so does our scientific understanding of the underlying mechanisms. Long-term variability of the terrestrial carbon cycle is not yet well constrained and the resulting climate–biosphere feedbacks are highly uncertain. Here we present a comprehensive overview of hydrometeorological and ecosystem variability from hourly to decadal timescales integrating multiple in situ and remote-sensing datasets characterizing extra-tropical forest sites. We find that ecosystem variability at all sites is confined within a hydrometeorological envelope across sites and timescales. Furthermore, ecosystem variability demonstrates long-term persistence, highlighting ecological memory and slow ecosystem recovery rates after disturbances. However, simulation results with state-of-the-art process-based models do not reflect this long-term persistent behaviour in ecosystem functioning. Accordingly, we develop a cross-time-scale stochastic framework that captures hydrometeorological and ecosystem variability. Our analysis offers a perspective for terrestrial ecosystem modelling and paves the way for new model–data integration opportunities in Earth system sciences.

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Fig. 1: Spatial distribution of the analysed forest sites.
Fig. 2: Ecosystem and hydrometeorological variability based on eddy covariance and micrometeorological data, respectively.
Fig. 3: Composite ecosystem and hydrometeorological variability continua.
Fig. 4: The hydrometeorological envelope of ecosystem variability continuum.
Fig. 5: Empirical versus simulated continua of ecosystem variability.
Fig. 6: A parsimonious stochastic framework for modelling ecosystem and hydrometeorological variability across timescales.


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This work used eddy covariance data acquired and shared by the FLUXNET community, including these networks: AmeriFlux, AfriFlux, AsiaFlux, CarboAfrica, CarboEuropeIP, CarboItaly, CarboMont, ChinaFlux, Fluxnet-Canada, GreenGrass, ICOS, KoFlux, LBA, NECC, OzFlux-TERN, TCOS-Siberia and USCCC. The FLUXNET eddy covariance data processing and harmonization was carried out by the ICOS Ecosystem Thematic Center, AmeriFlux Management Project and Fluxdata project of FLUXNET, with the support of CDIAC, and the OzFlux, ChinaFlux and AsiaFlux offices. We thank the participants of the TRENDY project, namely, P. Levy (Hyland), S. Sitch and C. Huntingford (JULES/TRIFFID), B. Poulter (LPJ), A. Ahlström (LPJ-GUESS), S. Levis (NCAR-CLM4), N. Viovy, S. Zaehle (OCN), M. Lomas (SDGVM) and N. Zeng (VEGAS), who made their simulations results (TRENDY v.1, experiment S2) freely available. C.P. acknowledges the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the ETH Zurich Foundation (grant P2EZP2_162293) through a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Early Postdoc. Mobility fellowship. M.D.M., F.B. and D.C.F. acknowledge funding from the European Union via the Horizon 2020 project ‘BACI’ (grant 640176). F.B. acknowledges funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant P300P2_154543).

Author information

C.P. designed the study, conducted the analysis and wrote the manuscript with input from M.D.M. and D.K. D.C.F. provided the tree-ring width data and F.B. the above-ground biomass increment data. All authors contributed to editing the manuscript.

Correspondence to Christoforos Pappas.

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Pappas, C., Mahecha, M.D., Frank, D.C. et al. Ecosystem functioning is enveloped by hydrometeorological variability. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 1263–1270 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0277-5

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