Missing sinks, feedbacks, and understanding the role of terrestrial ecosystems in the global carbon balance


  • R. A. Houghton,

  • E. A. Davidson,

  • G. M. Woodwell


Terrestrial ecosystems are thought to be a major sink for carbon at the present time. The endeavor to find this terrestrial sink and to determine the mechanisms responsible has dominated terrestrial research on the global carbon cycle for years. Some of the mechanisms advanced to explain the “missing sink” are also negative feedbacks to a global warming. Here we distinguish between mechanisms likely to act as feedbacks to a global warming and other mechanisms consistent with a terrestrial sink that are not feedbacks to a global warming. One of the postulated negative feedback mechanisms that also helps explain the current “missing sink” is based on the theory that carbon should accumulate in vegetation as a result of a warming-enhanced mineralization of nitrogen in soil organic matter. The theory assumes that mineralized N is neither retained in the soil (through reimmobilization by microbial biomass) nor lost from the ecosystem, but rather becomes available for plant growth. None of these assumptions is supported yet by field data. In contrast, trends across existing climatic gradients suggest that warmer temperatures will lead to a decrease in the C:N ratio of soils (i.e., the mineralized N remains in soil). Data pertaining to temporal variability in the global carbon balance are conflicting with respect to the question of whether increasing temperatures cause a release or storage of terrestrial carbon. The answer seems to depend in part on time scale. Most likely, multiple mechanisms, including some that release carbon and others that accumulate it, account for the present net accumulation of carbon on land. However, a positive feedback between temperature and the release of CO2 to the atmosphere by terrestrial respiration seems likely to grow in importance and could change significantly the role that terrestrial ecosystems play in the global carbon balance.