Working Group I: The Scientific Basis

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3.2 Terrestrial and Ocean Biogeochemistry: Update on Processes 3.2.1 Overview of the Carbon Cycle

The first panel of Figure 3.1 shows the major components of the carbon cycle, estimates of the current storage in the active compartments, and estimates of the gross fluxes between compartments. The second panel shows best estimates of the additional flux (release to the atmosphere positive; uptake negative) associated with the human perturbation of the carbon cycle during the 1980s. Note that the gross amounts of carbon annually exchanged between the ocean and atmosphere, and between the land and atmosphere, represent a sizeable fraction of the atmospheric CO2 content and are many times larger than the total anthropogenic CO2 input. In consequence, an imbalance in these exchanges could easily lead to an anomaly of comparable magnitude to the direct anthropogenic perturbation. This implies that it is important to consider how these fluxes may be changing in response to human activities.

To understand how the changing global environment may alter the carbon cycle, it is necessary to further analyse the fluxes and examine the physicochemical and biological processes that determine them. The remaining two panels of Figure 3.1 indicate the main constituent fluxes in the terrestrial and marine systems, with current estimates of their magnitude. The following sections explain the controls on these fluxes, with special reference to processes by which anthropogenic changes may influence the overall carbon balance of the land and oceans on time-scales from years to centuries.

Box 3.1: Measuring terrestrial carbon stocks and fluxes.

Estimating the carbon stocks in terrestrial ecosystems and accounting for changes in these stocks requires adequate information on land cover, carbon density in vegetation and soils, and the fate of carbon (burning, removals, decomposition). Accounting for changes in all carbon stocks in all areas would yield the net carbon exchange between terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere (NBP).

Global land cover maps show poor agreement due to different definitions of cover types and inconsistent sources of data (de Fries and Townshend, 1994). Land cover changes are difficult to document, uncertainties are large, and historical data are sparse. Satellite imagery is a valuable tool for estimating land cover, despite problems with cloud cover, changes at fine spatial scales, and interpretation (for example, difficulties in distinguishing primary and secondary forest). Aerial photography and ground measurements can be used to validate satellite-based observations.

The carbon density of vegetation and soils has been measured in numerous ecological field studies that have been aggregated to a global scale to assess carbon stocks and NPP (e.g., Atjay et al., 1979; Olson et al., 1983; Saugier and Roy, 2001; Table 3.2), although high spatial and temporal heterogeneity and methodological differences introduce large uncertainties. Land inventory studies tend to measure the carbon stocks in vegetation and soils over larger areas and/or longer time periods. For example, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has been compiling forest inventories since 1946 providing detailed data on carbon stocks, often based on commercial wood production data. Inventory studies include managed forests with mixed age stands, thus average carbon stock values are often lower than those based on ecological site studies, which have generally been carried out in relatively undisturbed, mature ecosystems. Fluxes of carbon can be estimated from changes in inventoried carbon stocks (e.g., UN-ECE/FAO, 2000), or from combining data on land-use change with methods to calculate changes in carbon stock (e.g., Houghton, 1999). The greatest uncertainty in both methods is in estimating the fate of the carbon: the fraction which is burned, rates of decomposition, the effect of burning and harvesting on soil carbon, and subsequent land management.

Ecosystem-atmosphere CO2 exchange on short time-scales can be measured using micrometeorological techniques such as eddy covariance, which relies on rapidly responding sensors mounted on towers to resolve the net flux of CO2 between a patch of land and the atmosphere (Baldocchi et al., 1988). The annual integral of the measured CO2 exchange is approximately equivalent to NEP (Wofsy et al., 1993; Goulden et. al, 1996; Aubinet et al., 2000). This innovation has led to the establishment of a rapidly expanding network of long-term monitoring sites (FLUXNET) with many sites now operating for several years, improving the understanding of the physiological and ecological processes that control NEP (e.g., Valentini et al., 2000). The distribution of sites is currently biased toward regrowing forests in the Northern Hemisphere, and there are still technical problems and uncertainties, although these are being tackled. Current flux measurement techniques typically integrate processes at a scale less than 1 km2.

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