Climatological temperature senstivity of soil carbon turnover: Observations, simple scaling models, and ESMs

Friday, December 16, 2016 - 16:00
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The projected loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere resulting from climate change is a potentially large but highly uncertain feedback to warming. The magnitude of this feedback is poorly constrained by observations and theory, and is disparately represented in Earth system models. To assess the likely long-term response of soils to climate change, spatial gradients in soil carbon turnover times can identify broad-scale and long-term controls on the rate of carbon cycling as a function of climate and other factors. Here we show that the climatological temperature control on carbon turnover in the top meter of global soils is more sensitive in cold climates than in warm ones. We present a simplified model that explains the high cold-climate sensitivity using only the physical scaling of soil freeze-thaw state across climate gradients. Critically, current Earth system models (ESMs) fail to capture this pattern, however it emerges from an ESM that explicitly resolves vertical gradients in soil climate and turnover. The weak tropical temperature sensitivity emerges from a different model that explicitly resolves mineralogical control on decomposition. These results support projections of strong future carbon-climate feedbacks from northern soils and demonstrate a method for ESMs to capture this emergent behavior.

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