Biological and Environmental Research - Earth and Environmental System Sciences
Earth and Environmental System Modeling
15 April 2020

Assessing Impacts of Plant Stoichiometric Traits on Terrestrial Ecosystem Carbon Accumulation Using the E3SM Land Model

Plant stoichiometry traits in E3SM.


Carbon (C) enters terrestrial ecosystems via photosynthesis and cycles with other essential nutrients (i.e., nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P)). This coupling of C, N, and P leads to the theoretical prediction that nutrient availability will limit photosynthesis and plant growth in the future, thus affecting atmospheric CO2 concentrations and climate change.


The lack of reliable information about plant tissue stoichiometric traits remains a challenge to quantifying nutrient limitations on projected global C cycling. In this study, we harmonized observed plant tissue C:N:P stoichiometry from more than 6,000 plant species using the Plant Functional Type (PFT) framework common in global land models. We then show that nutrient stoichiometric flexibility is a dominant controller of terrestrial ecosystem responses to elevated CO2.


Using observed C:N:P stoichiometry and the flexibility of these ratios as emergent plant traits, we show that observationally-constrained fixed plant stoichiometry does not improve model estimates of present-day C dynamics. However, adopting stoichiometric flexibility significantly improves model predictions of C fluxes and stocks. 21st-century simulations with RCP8.5 CO2 concentrations show that stoichiometric flexibility, rather than baseline stoichiometric ratios, is the dominant controller of plant productivity and ecosystem C accumulation in modeled responses to CO2 fertilization. The enhanced nutrient limitations and plant P-use efficiency mainly explain these results. This study is consistent with the previous consensus that nutrient availability will limit future land carbon sequestration but challenges the idea that imbalances between C and nutrient supplies and fixed stoichiometry limit future land C sinks. We show here that it is necessary to represent nutrient stoichiometric flexibility in models to accurately project future terrestrial ecosystem carbon sequestration.

William J. Riley
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Zhu, Q, W Riley, C Iversen, and J Kattge.  2020.  "Assessing Impacts of Plant Stoichiometric Traits on Terrestrial Ecosystem Carbon Accumulation Using the E3SM Land Model."  Journal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems 12(4).