Does terrestrial drought explain global CO2 flux anomalies induced by El Niño?
Abstract. The El Niño Southern Oscillation is the dominant year-to-year mode of global climate variability. El Niño effects on terrestrial carbon cycling are mediated by associated climate anomalies, primarily drought, influencing fire emissions and biotic net ecosystem exchange (NEE). Here we evaluate whether El Niño produces a consistent response from the global carbon cycle. We apply a novel bottom-up approach to estimating global NEE anomalies based on FLUXNET data using land cover maps and weather reanalysis. We analyze 13 years (1997–2009) of globally gridded observational NEE anomalies derived from eddy covariance flux data, remotely-sensed fire emissions at the monthly time step, and NEE estimated from an atmospheric transport inversion. We evaluate the overall consistency of biospheric response to El Niño and, more generally, the link between global CO2 flux anomalies and El Niño-induced drought. Our findings, which are robust relative to uncertainty in both methods and time-lags in response, indicate that each event has a different spatial signature with only limited spatial coherence in Amazônia, Australia and southern Africa. For most regions, the sign of response changed across El Niño events. Biotic NEE anomalies, across 5 El Niño events, ranged from –1.34 to +0.98 Pg C yr−1, whereas fire emissions anomalies were generally smaller in magnitude (ranging from –0.49 to +0.53 Pg C yr−1). Overall drought does not appear to impose consistent terrestrial CO2 flux anomalies during El Niños, finding large variation in globally integrated responses from –1.15 to +0.49 Pg C yr−1. Despite the significant correlation between the CO2 flux and El Niño indices, we find that El Niño events have, when globally integrated, both enhanced and weakened terrestrial sink strength, with no consistent response across events.