Articles | Volume 3, issue 2
29 Mar 2006
29 Mar 2006

Biological control of the terrestrial carbon sink

E.-D. Schulze

Abstract. This lecture reviews the past (since 1964 when the International Biological Program began) and the future of our understanding of terrestrial carbon fluxes with focus on photosynthesis, respiration, primary-, ecosystem-, and biome-productivity.

Photosynthetic capacity is related to the nitrogen concentration of leaves, but the capacity is only rarely reached under field conditions. Average rates of photosynthesis and stomatal conductance are closely correlated and operate near 50% of their maximal rate, with light being the limiting factor in humid regions and air humidity and soil water the limiting factor in arid climates. Leaf area is the main factor to extrapolate from leaves to canopies, with maximum surface conductance being dependent on leaf level stomatal conductance. Additionally, gas exchange depends also on rooting depth which determines the water and nutrient availability and on mycorrhizae which regulate the nutrient status. An important anthropogenic disturbance is the nitrogen uptake from air pollutants, which is not balanced by cation uptake from roots and this may lead to damage and breakdown of the plant cover.

Photosynthesis is the main carbon input into ecosystems, but it alone does not represent the ecosystem carbon balance, which is determined by respiration of various kinds. Plant respiration and photosynthesis determine growth (net primary production) and microbial respiration balances the net ecosystem flux. In a spruce forest, 30% of the assimilatory carbon gain is used for respiration of needles, 20% is used for respiration in stems. Soil respiration is about 50% the carbon gain, half of which is root respiration, half is microbial respiration. In addition, disturbances lead to carbon losses, where fire, harvest and grazing bypass the chain of respiration. In total, the carbon balance at the biome level is only about 1% of the photosynthetic carbon input, or may indeed become negative. The recent observed increase in plant growth has different reasons depending on the region of the world: anthropogenic nitrogen deposition is the controlling factor in Europe, increasing global temperatures is the main factor in Siberia, and maybe rising CO2 the factor controlling the carbon fluxes in Amazonia. However, this has not lead to increases in net biome productivity, due to associated losses. Also important is the interaction between biodiversity and biogeochemical processes. It is shown that net primary productivity increases with plant species diversity (50% species loss equals 20% loss in productivity). However, in this extrapolation the action of soil biota is poorly understood although soils contribute the largest number of species and of taxonomic groups to an ecosystem.

The global terrestrial carbon budget strongly depends on areas with pristine old growth forests which are carbon sinks. The management options are very limited, mostly short term, and usually associated with high uncertainty. Unmanaged grasslands appear to be a carbon sink of similar magnitude as forest, but generally these ecosystems lost their C with grazing and agricultural use.

Extrapolation to the future of Earth climate shows that the biota will not be able to balance fossil fuel emissions, and that it will be essential to develop a carbon free energy system in order to maintain the living conditions on earth.

Final-revised paper