Articles | Volume 12, issue 17
Research article
07 Sep 2015
Research article |  | 07 Sep 2015

Controls on terrestrial carbon feedbacks by productivity versus turnover in the CMIP5 Earth System Models

C. D. Koven, J. Q. Chambers, K. Georgiou, R. Knox, R. Negron-Juarez, W. J. Riley, V. K. Arora, V. Brovkin, P. Friedlingstein, and C. D. Jones

Abstract. To better understand sources of uncertainty in projections of terrestrial carbon cycle feedbacks, we present an approach to separate the controls on modeled carbon changes. We separate carbon changes into four categories using a linearized, equilibrium approach: those arising from changed inputs (productivity-driven changes), and outputs (turnover-driven changes), of both the live and dead carbon pools. Using Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 (CMIP5) simulations for five models, we find that changes to the live pools are primarily explained by productivity-driven changes, with only one model showing large compensating changes to live carbon turnover times. For dead carbon pools, the situation is more complex as all models predict a large reduction in turnover times in response to increases in productivity. This response arises from the common representation of a broad spectrum of decomposition turnover times via a multi-pool approach, in which flux-weighted turnover times are faster than mass-weighted turnover times. This leads to a shift in the distribution of carbon among dead pools in response to changes in inputs, and therefore a transient but long-lived reduction in turnover times. Since this behavior, a reduction in inferred turnover times resulting from an increase in inputs, is superficially similar to priming processes, but occurring without the mechanisms responsible for priming, we call the phenomenon "false priming", and show that it masks much of the intrinsic changes to dead carbon turnover times as a result of changing climate. These patterns hold across the fully coupled, biogeochemically coupled, and radiatively coupled 1 % yr−1 increasing CO2 experiments. We disaggregate inter-model uncertainty in the globally integrated equilibrium carbon responses to initial turnover times, initial productivity, fractional changes in turnover, and fractional changes in productivity. For both the live and dead carbon pools, inter-model spread in carbon changes arising from initial conditions is dominated by model disagreement on turnover times, whereas inter-model spread in carbon changes from fractional changes to these terms is dominated by model disagreement on changes to productivity in response to both warming and CO2 fertilization. However, the lack of changing turnover time control on carbon responses, for both live and dead carbon pools, in response to the imposed forcings may arise from a common lack of process representation behind changing turnover times (e.g., allocation and mortality for live carbon; permafrost, microbial dynamics, and mineral stabilization for dead carbon), rather than a true estimate of the importance of these processes.

Short summary
Terrestrial carbon feedbacks are a large uncertainty in climate change. We separate modeled feedback responses into those governed by changed carbon inputs (productivity) and changed outputs (turnover). The disaggregated responses show that both are important in controlling inter-model uncertainty. Interactions between productivity and turnover are also important, and research must focus on these interactions for more accurate projections of carbon cycle feedbacks.
Final-revised paper