Working Group I: The Scientific Basis

Other reports in this collection Effects of climate

Solar radiation, temperature and available water affect photo-synthesis, plant respiration and decomposition, thus climate change can lead to changes in NEP. A substantial part of the interannual variability in the rate of increase of CO2 is likely to reflect terrestrial biosphere responses to climate variability (Section 3.5.3). Warming may increase NPP in temperate and arctic ecosystems where it can increase the length of the seasonal and daily growing cycles, but it may decrease NPP in water-stressed ecosystems as it increases water loss. Respiratory processes are sensitive to temperature; soil and root respiration have generally been shown to increase with warming in the short term (Lloyd and Taylor, 1994; Boone et al., 1998) although evidence on longer-term impacts is conflicting (Trumbore, 2000; Giardina and Ryan, 2000; Jarvis and Linder, 2000). Changes in rainfall pattern affect plant water availability and the length of the growing season, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions. Cloud cover can be beneficial to NPP in dry areas with high solar radiation, but detrimental in areas with low solar radiation. Changing climate can also affect the distribution of plants and the incidence of disturbances such as fire (which could increase or decrease depending on warming and precipitation patterns, possibly resulting under some circumstances in rapid losses of carbon), wind, and insect and pathogen attacks, leading to changes in NBP. The global balance of these positive and negative effects of climate on NBP depends strongly on regional aspects of climate change.

The climatic sensitivity of high northern latitude ecosystems (tundra and taiga) has received particular attention as a consequence of their expanse, high carbon density, and observations of disproportionate warming in these regions (Chapman and Walsh, 1993; Overpeck et al., 1997). High-latitude ecosystems contain about 25% of the total world soil carbon pool in the permafrost and the seasonally-thawed soil layer. This carbon storage may be affected by changes in temperature and water table depth. High latitude ecosystems have low NPP, in part due to short growing seasons, and slow nutrient cycling because of low rates of decomposition in waterlogged and cold soils. Remotely sensed data (Myneni et al., 1997) and phenological observations (Menzel and Fabian, 1999) independently indicate a recent trend to longer growing seasons in the boreal zone and temperate Europe. Such a trend might be expected to have increased annual NPP. A shift towards earlier and stronger spring depletion of atmospheric CO2 has also been observed at northern stations, consistent with earlier onset of growth at mid- to high northern latitudes (Manning, 1992; Keeling et al., 1996a; Randerson, 1999). However, recent flux measurements at individual high-latitude sites have generally failed to find appreciable NEP (Oechel et al., 1993; Goulden et al., 1998; Schulze et al., 1999; Oechel et al., 2000). These studies suggest that, at least in the short term, any direct effect of warming on NPP may be more than offset by an increased respiration of soil carbon caused by the effects of increased depth of soil thaw. Increased decomposition, may, however also increase nutrient mineralisation and thereby indirectly stimulate NPP (Melillo et al., 1993; Jarvis and Linder, 2000; Oechel et al., 2000).

Large areas of the tropics are arid and semi-arid, and plant production is limited by water availability. There is evidence that even evergreen tropical moist forests show reduced GPP during the dry season (Malhi et al., 1998) and may become a carbon source under the hot, dry conditions of typical El Niño years. With a warmer ocean surface, and consequently generally increased precipitation, the global trend in the tropics might be expected to be towards increased NPP, but changing precipitation patterns could lead to drought, reducing NPP and increasing fire frequency in the affected regions.

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