Articles | Volume 13, issue 5
Biogeosciences, 13, 1491–1518, 2016
Biogeosciences, 13, 1491–1518, 2016

Research article 10 Mar 2016

Research article | 10 Mar 2016

Variability of projected terrestrial biosphere responses to elevated levels of atmospheric CO2 due to uncertainty in biological nitrogen fixation

Johannes Meyerholt1,2, Sönke Zaehle1,3, and Matthew J. Smith4 Johannes Meyerholt et al.
  • 1Biogeochemical Integration Department, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Jena, Germany
  • 2International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS) for Global Biogeochemical Cycles, Jena, Germany
  • 3Michael Stifel Center Jena for Data-driven and Simulation Science, Jena, Germany
  • 4Computational Science Laboratory, Microsoft Research Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

Abstract. Including a terrestrial nitrogen (N) cycle in Earth system models has led to substantial attenuation of predicted biosphere–climate feedbacks. However, the magnitude of this attenuation remains uncertain. A particularly important but highly uncertain process is biological nitrogen fixation (BNF), which is the largest natural input of N to land ecosystems globally. In order to quantify this uncertainty and estimate likely effects on terrestrial biosphere dynamics, we applied six alternative formulations of BNF spanning the range of process formulations in current state-of-the-art biosphere models within a common framework, the O-CN model: a global map of static BNF rates, two empirical relationships between BNF and other ecosystem variables (net primary productivity and evapotranspiration), two process-oriented formulations based on plant N status, and an optimality-based approach. We examined the resulting differences in model predictions under ambient and elevated atmospheric [CO2] and found that the predicted global BNF rates and their spatial distribution for contemporary conditions were broadly comparable, ranging from 108 to 148 Tg N yr−1 (median: 128 Tg N yr−1), despite distinct regional patterns associated with the assumptions of each approach. Notwithstanding, model responses in BNF rates to elevated levels of atmospheric [CO2] (+200 ppm) ranged between −4 Tg N yr−1 (−3 %) and 56 Tg N yr−1 (+42 %) (median: 7 Tg N yr−1 (+8 %)). As a consequence, future projections of global ecosystem carbon (C) storage (+281 to +353 Pg C, or +13 to +16 %) as well as N2O emission (−1.6 to +0.5 Tg N yr−1, or −19 to +7 %) differed significantly across the different model formulations. Our results emphasize the importance of better understanding the nature and magnitude of BNF responses to change-induced perturbations, particularly through new empirical perturbation experiments and improved model representation.

Short summary
We investigated how today's state-of-the-art terrestrial biosphere models represent biological nitrogen fixation and what the consequences of varying representation are for model predictions under ambient conditions and under scenarios of elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. We found that varying global nitrogen fixation rates are simulated under ambient conditions and that the responses of the simulated carbon and nitrogen cycles are significantly affected under perturbation.
Final-revised paper