Examining soil carbon uncertainty in a global model: response of microbial decomposition to temperature, moisture and nutrient limitation
Abstract. Reliable projections of future climate require land–atmosphere carbon (C) fluxes to be represented realistically in Earth system models (ESMs). There are several sources of uncertainty in how carbon is parameterised in these models. First, while interactions between the C, nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) cycles have been implemented in some models, these lead to diverse changes in land–atmosphere fluxes. Second, while the first-order parameterisation of soil organic matter decomposition is similar between models, formulations of the control of the soil physical state on microbial activity vary widely. For the first time, we address these sources of uncertainty simultaneously by implementing three soil moisture and three soil temperature respiration functions in an ESM that can be run with three degrees of biogeochemical nutrient limitation (C-only, C and N, and C and N and P). All 27 possible combinations of response functions and biogeochemical mode are equilibrated before transient historical (1850–2005) simulations are performed. As expected, implementing N and P limitation reduces the land carbon sink, transforming some regional sinks into net sources over the historical period. Meanwhile, regardless of which nutrient mode is used, various combinations of response functions imply a two-fold difference in the net ecosystem accumulation and a four-fold difference in equilibrated total soil C. We further show that regions with initially larger pools are more likely to become carbon sources, especially when nutrient availability limits the response of primary production to increasing atmospheric CO2. Simulating changes in soil C content therefore critically depends on both nutrient limitation and the choice of respiration functions.