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Synergistic effects of four climate change drivers on terrestrial carbon cycling


Disentangling impacts of multiple global changes on terrestrial carbon cycling is important, both in its own right and because such impacts can dampen or accelerate increases in atmospheric CO2 concentration. Here we report on an eight-year grassland experiment, TeRaCON, in Minnesota, United States, that factorially manipulated four drivers: temperature, rainfall, CO2 and nitrogen deposition. Net primary production increased under warming, elevated CO2 and nitrogen deposition, and decreased under diminished summer rainfall. Treatment combinations that increased net primary production also increased soil CO2 emissions, but less so, and hence ecosystem carbon storage increased overall. Productivity, soil carbon emissions and plant carbon stock responses to each individual factor were influenced by levels of the other drivers, in both amplifying and dampening ways. Percentage increases in productivity, soil carbon emissions and plant carbon stocks in response to two, three or four global changes experienced jointly were generally much greater than those expected based on the effects of each individual driver alone. Multiple global change drivers had a profound combined influence on observed outcomes that would have been poorly predicted by knowledge of each driver alone. If such interacting impacts of multiple global change drivers on carbon cycling occur widely among ecosystems, accurately projecting biosphere responses to multifactorial global changes will remain a major challenge in the decades ahead.

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Fig. 1: NPP over time in relation to each of the four treatments.
Fig. 2: NPP and soil CO2 flux.
Fig. 3: Relationships of C pools, NPP and treatments.
Fig. 4: Mean NPP and soil CO2 flux, averaged across all eight years, in relation to pairs of treatment factors.

Data availability

All the data used in this article are available through the Environmental Data Initiative data repository at and


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We thank numerous summer interns for assistance with the experimental operation and data collection and management. This study was funded by programs from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) Long-Term Ecological Research (DEB-0620652, DEB-1234162 and DEB-1831944), Long-Term Research in Environmental Biology (DEB-1242531 and DEB-1753859), Biological Integration Institutes (NSF-DBI-2021898), Ecosystem Sciences (NSF DEB-1120064) and MRI (DBI-1725683), as well as the US Department of Energy Programs for Ecosystem Research (DE-FG02-96ER62291).

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Authors and Affiliations



P.B.R. designed the study with assistance from S.E.H., T.D.L. and R.R., and supervised the overall experiment and measurements. R.R. designed the warming facility. R.R. and K.W. conducted the warming manipulations. K.W. supervised the plant and ecosystem measurements and the rainfall treatments. M.A.P. conducted the soil C analyses. P.B.R. analysed the data, with assistance from the other authors. P.B.R. wrote the first draft; all the authors jointly revised the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Peter B. Reich.

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Peer review information Primary Handling Editors: Clare Davis; Rebecca Neely.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Proportion of total aboveground biomass across all treatments for every year for each of the most dominant 11 species.

Species were planted on average in 9/16th of all plots. Solid lines show linear change over time for 9 species (0.11 < P < 0.0001; 0.38 < R2 < 0.94); dashed lines show mean values for two species with no evidence of consistent temporal change (0.5 < P; R2 < 0.07). Note that the proportion axes differ for the C4 grasses versus all of the other species.

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Reich, P.B., Hobbie, S.E., Lee, T.D. et al. Synergistic effects of four climate change drivers on terrestrial carbon cycling. Nat. Geosci. 13, 787–793 (2020).

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