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Keywords:

  • carbon storage;
  • climate change;
  • general ecosystem model;
  • net ecosystem production;
  • terrestrial ecosystem model;
  • tundra ecosystems

Summary

We are developing a process-based modelling approach to investigate how carbon (C) storage of tundra across the entire Arctic will respond to projected climate change. To implement the approach, the processes that are least understood, and thus have the most uncertainty, need to be identified and studied. In this paper, we identified a key uncertainty by comparing the responses of C storage in tussock tundra at one site between the simulations of two models – one a global-scale ecosystem model (Terrestrial Ecosystem Model, TEM) and one a plot-scale ecosystem model (General Ecosystem Model, GEM). The simulations spanned the historical period (1921–94) and the projected period (1995–2100). In the historical period, the model simulations of net primary production (NPP) differed in their sensitivity to variability in climate. However, the long-term changes in C storage were similar in both simulations, because the dynamics of heterotrophic respiration (RH) were similar in both models. In contrast, the responses of C storage in the two model simulations diverged during the projected period. In the GEM simulation for this period, increases in RH tracked increases in NPP, whereas in the TEM simulation increases in RH lagged increases in NPP. We were able to make the long-term C dynamics of the two simulations agree by parameterizing TEM to the fast soil C pools of GEM. We concluded that the differences between the long-term C dynamics of the two simulations lay in modelling the role of the recalcitrant soil C. These differences, which reflect an incomplete understanding of soil processes, lead to quite different projections of the response of pan-Arctic C storage to global change. For example, the reference parameterization of TEM resulted in an estimate of cumulative C storage of 2032 g C m−2 for moist tundra north of 50°N, which was substantially higher than the 463 g C m−2 estimated for a parameterization of fast soil C dynamics. This uncertainty in the depiction of the role of recalcitrant soil C in long-term ecosystem C dynamics resulted from our incomplete understanding of controls over C and N transformations in Arctic soils. Mechanistic studies of these issues are needed to improve our ability to model the response of Arctic ecosystems to global change.