Multiple independent constraints help resolve net ecosystem carbon exchange under nutrient limitation
Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 12:05 PM
The magnitude, spatial distribution, and variability of land net ecosystem exchange of carbon (NEE) are important determinants of the trajectory of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. Independent observational constraints provide important clues regarding NEE and its component fluxes, with information available at multiple spatial scales: from cells, to leaves, to entire organisms and collections of organisms, to complex landscapes and up to continental and global scales. Experimental manipulations, ecosystem observations, and process modeling all suggest that the components of NEE (photosynthetic gains, and respiration and other losses) are controlled in part by the availability of mineral nutrients, and that nutrient limitation is a common condition in many biomes. Experimental and observational constraints at different spatial scales provide a complex and sometimes puzzling picture of the nature and degree of influence of nutrient availability on carbon cycle processes. Photosynthetic rates assessed at the cellular and leaf scales are often higher than the observed accumulation of carbon in plant and soil pools would suggest. We infer that a down-regulation process intervenes between carbon uptake and plant growth under conditions of nutrient limitation, and several down-regulation mechanisms have been hypothesized and tested. A recent evaluation of two alternative hypotheses for down-regulation in the light of whole-plant level flux estimates indicates that some plants take up and store extra carbon, releasing it to the environment again on short time scales. The mechanism of release, either as additional autotrophic respiration or as exudation belowground is unclear, but has important consequences for long-term ecosystem state and response to climate change signals. Global-scale constraints from atmospheric concentration and isotopic composition data help to resolve this question, ultimately focusing attention on land use fluxes as the most uncertain aspect of the historical and present-day atmospheric carbon budget. The result of this multi-scale enquiry is to suggest a small number of critical research needs which have yet to be met, but which would significantly improve our ability to understand and predict the trajectory of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration.