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CMIP5 Models Predict Rapid and Deep Soil Warming Over the 21st Century

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Despite the fundamental importance of soil temperature for Earth's carbon and energy budgets, ecosystem functioning, and agricultural production, studies of climate change impacts on soil processes have mainly relied on air temperatures, assuming they are accurate proxies for soil temperatures. We evaluated changes in soil temperature, moisture, and air temperature predicted over the 21st century from 14 Earth system models. The model ensemble predicted a global mean soil warming of 2.3 ± 0.7 and 4.5 ± 1.1 °C at 100-cm depth by the end of the 21st century for RCPs 4.5 and 8.5, respectively. Soils at 100 cm warmed at almost exactly the same rate as near-surface (~1 cm) soils. Globally, soil warming was slightly slower than air warming above it, and this difference increased over the 21st century. Regionally, soil warming kept pace with air warming in tropical and arid regions but lagged air warming in colder regions. Thus, air warming is not necessarily a good proxy for soil warming in cold regions where snow and ice impede the direct transfer of sensible heat from the atmosphere to soil. Despite this effect, high-latitude soils were still projected to warm faster than elsewhere, albeit at slower rates than surface air above them. When compared with observations, the models were able to capture soil thermal dynamics in most biomes, but some failed to recreate thermal properties in permafrost regions. Particularly in cold regions, using soil warming rather than air warming projections may improve predictions of temperature-sensitive soil processes.

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