The ever-increasing CO2 seasonal cycle amplitude: contributions from high latitude warming, CO2 fertilization, and the agricultural Green Revolution
Monday, 15 December 2014
Human activities has tranformed the Earth's surface in complex ways. Here we show that not only land cover change, but also the management intensity, namely the intensification of agriculture through the Green Revolution has had a profound impact on the carbon cycle. A long-standing puzzle in the global carbon cycle is the increase in the amplitude of the seasonal cycle of atmospheric CO2. This increase likely reflects enhanced biological activity in the Northern Hemisphere (NH). It has been hypothesized that vegetation growth may have been stimulated by higher concentrations of CO2 as well as warming in recent decades, but the role of such specific mechanisms has not been quantified and they have been unable to explain the full range and magnitude of observations. Here we suggest another potential driver of the increased seasonal amplitude: the intensification of agriculture from the Green Revolution to feed a rising population, that led to a 3-fold increase in world crop production over the last 5 decades. Our analysis of CO2 data and atmospheric inversions shows a robust 15% long-term increase in CO2 seasonal amplitude from 1961 to 2010 that is punctuated by large decadal and interannual variations. The three pillars of the Green Revolution, consisting of high yield cultivars, fertilizer use, and irrigation, are represented in a terrestrial carbon cycle model. The results reveal that the long-term increase in CO2 seasonal amplitude arises from two major regions in the NH: the mid-latitude cropland between 25N-60N that encompasses the world’s major agriculture zones in Asia, Europe and North America, and the high-latitude natural vegetation between 50N-70N that includes much of the Northern boreal forests, tundra and some deciduous forests. The long-term trend of seasonal amplitude is 0.3% per year, of which sensitivity experiments attribute 43% to land use change, 31% to climate variability and change, and 26% to CO2 fertilization. Our results suggest that human land use and management is a key driver in the changing seasonal ‘breathing’ of the biosphere as well as the long-term carbon sink. Research priorities thus need to balance the studies of both the natural systems and human system, and importantly the interplay between them.