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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Alaskan carbon-climate feedbacks will be weaker than inferred from short-term experiments.

  • Author(s): Bouskill, Nicholas J
  • Riley, William J
  • Zhu, Qing
  • Mekonnen, Zelalem A
  • Grant, Robert F
  • et al.

Climate warming is occurring fastest at high latitudes. Based on short-term field experiments, this warming is projected to stimulate soil organic matter decomposition, and promote a positive feedback to climate change. We show here that the tightly coupled, nonlinear nature of high-latitude ecosystems implies that short-term (<10 year) warming experiments produce emergent ecosystem carbon stock temperature sensitivities inconsistent with emergent multi-decadal responses. We first demonstrate that a well-tested mechanistic ecosystem model accurately represents observed carbon cycle and active layer depth responses to short-term summer warming in four diverse Alaskan sites. We then show that short-term warming manipulations do not capture the non-linear, long-term dynamics of vegetation, and thereby soil organic matter, that occur in response to thermal, hydrological, and nutrient transformations belowground. Our results demonstrate significant spatial heterogeneity in multi-decadal Arctic carbon cycle trajectories and argue for more mechanistic models to improve predictive capabilities.

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