Response of Soil Temperature to Climate Change in the CMIP5 Earth System Models

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Claire Louise Phillips, Oregon State University, Department of Crops and Soil Science, Corvallis, OR, United States, Margaret S Torn, Berkeley Lab/UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, United States and Charles D Koven, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, United States
Predictions of soil temperature changes are as critical to policy development and climate change adaptation as predictions of air temperature, but have received comparatively little attention. Soil temperature determines seed germination and growth of wild and agricultural plants, and impacts climate through both geophysical and carbon-cycle feedbacks. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment Report does not report soil temperature predictions, but focuses instead on surface air temperatures, despite the fact that mean annual soil temperatures and mean surface air temperatures are often different from each other. Here we aim to fill this important knowledge gap by reporting soil temperature and moisture predictions for 15 earth system models (ESMs) that participated in phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison 5 Project (CMIP5). Under the RCP 4.5 and 8.5 emissions scenarios, soil warming is predicted to almost keep pace with soil air warming, with about 10% less warming in soil than air, globally. The slower warming of soil compared to air is likely related to predictions of soil drying, with drier soils having reduced soil heat capacity and thermal conductivity. Mollisol soils, which are typically regarded as the most productive soil order for cultivating cereal crops, are anticipated to see warming in North America of 3.5 to 5.5 °C at the end of the 21st century (2080-2100) compared to 1986-2005. One impact of soil warming is likely to be an acceleration of germination timing, with the 3°C temperature threshold for wheat germination anticipated to advance by several weeks in Mollisol regions. Furthermore, soil warming at 1 m depth is predicted to be almost equivalent to warming at 1 cm depth in frost-free regions, indicating vulnerability of deep soil carbon pools to destabilization. To assess model performance we compare the models’ predictions with observations of damping depth, and offsets between mean annual soil and air temperature for the historic period. We find ESMs generally predict warmer mean annual air temperature than soil, whereas observations show air temperatures are cooler or similar to soil temperatures in many locations. To improve future assessments of soil carbon, it is important to benchmark soil-air temperature linkages of global land models.