Global land model development: Time to shift from a plant functional type to a plant functional trait approach

Funding Program: 

This project will advance global land models by shifting from the current plant functional type (PFT) approach to one that better utilizes what is known about the importance and variability of plant traits. A primary goal for Earth System Modeling is to make accurate predictions of the future trajectory of the climate system, based on a mechanistic understanding of processes regulating fluxes of mass and energy among system components. Land plays an important role in modifying the Earth's mass and energy balance, as a critical link in the global cycling of carbon, among others. Land surface models have developed to include mechanistic representations of vegetation physiology, carbon and nutrient dynamics in plants and soils, how they might respond to changing climate and chemistry, and how those changes might feedback to influence changes in atmospheric greenhouse gases themselves. Our work will address these processes.

Existing models represent the global distribution of vegetation types using the PFT concept. PFTs are classes of plant species with similar evolutionary and life history with presumably similar responses to environmental conditions like CO2, water and nutrient availability. Fixed properties for each PFT are specified through a collection of physiological parameters, or traits. These traits, mostly physiological in nature (e.g., leaf nitrogen and longevity) are used in model algorithms to estimate ecosystem properties and/or drive calculated process rates. In most models, terrestrial vegetation is represented by 5 to 15 PFTs; in essence, they assume there are a total of only 5 to 15 different kinds of plants on the entire globe. This assumption of constant plant traits in PFTs has serious limitations, as a single set of traits does not reflect trait variation observed within and between species and communities. While this simplification was necessary decades past, substantial improvement is now possible. Rather than assigning a small number of constant parameter values to all grid cells in a model, procedures will be developed that predict a frequency distribution of values for any given grid cell. Thus, the mean and variance, and how these change with time, will inform and improve model performance.

The trait-based approach will improve land modeling by (1) incorporating patterns and heterogeneity of traits into model parameterization, thus evolving away from a framework that considers large areas of vegetation to have near identical trait values; (2) utilizing what is known about trait-trait, -soil, and -climate relations to improve algorithms used to predict processes at multiple stages; and (3) allowing for improved treatment of physiological responses to environment (such as temperature and/or CO2 response of photosynthesis or respiration).

This project will advance global land models by shifting from the current plant functional type (PFT) approach to one that better utilizes what is known about the importance and variability of plant traits. A primary goal for Earth System Modeling is to make accurate predictions of the future trajectory of the climate system, based on a mechanistic understanding of processes regulating fluxes of mass and energy among system components. Land plays an important role in modifying the Earth's mass and energy balance, as a critical link in the global cycling of carbon, among others. Land surface models have developed to include mechanistic representations of vegetation physiology, carbon and nutrient dynamics in plants and soils, how they might respond to changing climate and chemistry, and how those changes might feedback to influence changes in atmospheric greenhouse gases themselves. Our work will address these processes.

Existing models represent the global distribution of vegetation types using the PFT concept. PFTs are classes of plant species with similar evolutionary and life history with presumably similar responses to environmental conditions like CO<sub>2</sub>, water and nutrient availability. Fixed properties for each PFT are specified through a collection of physiological parameters, or traits. These traits, mostly physiological in nature (e.g., leaf nitrogen and longevity) are used in model algorithms to estimate ecosystem properties and/or drive calculated process rates. In most models, terrestrial vegetation is represented by 5 to 15 PFTs; in essence, they assume there are a total of only 5 to 15 different kinds of plants on the entire globe. This assumption of constant plant traits in PFTs has serious limitations, as a single set of traits does not reflect trait variation observed within and between species and communities. While this simplification was necessary decades past, substantial improvement is now possible. Rather than assigning a small number of constant parameter values to all grid cells in a model, procedures will be developed that predict a frequency distribution of values for any given grid cell. Thus, the mean and variance, and how these change with time, will inform and improve model performance.

The trait-based approach will improve land modeling by (1) incorporating patterns and heterogeneity of traits into model parameterization, thus evolving away from a framework that considers large areas of vegetation to have near identical trait values; (2) utilizing what is known about trait-trait, -soil, and -climate relations to improve algorithms used to predict processes at multiple stages; and (3) allowing for improved treatment of physiological responses to environment (such as temperature and/or CO<sub>2</sub> response of photosynthesis or respiration).

Project Term: 
2014 to 2017
Project Type: 
University Funded Research

Research Highlights:

None Available