The eddy covariance technique ascertains the exchange rate of CO2 across the interface between the atmosphere and a plant canopy by measuring the covariance between fluctuations in vertical wind velocity and CO2 mixing ratio. Two decades ago, the method was employed to study CO2 exchange of agricultural crops under ideal conditions during short field campaigns. During the past decade the eddy covariance method has emerged as an important tool for evaluating fluxes of carbon dioxide between terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere over the course of a year, and more. At present, the method is being applied in a nearly continuous mode to study carbon dioxide and water vapor exchange at over a hundred and eighty field sites, worldwide. The objective of this review is to assess the eddy covariance method as it is being applied by the global change community on increasingly longer time scales and over less than ideal surfaces.
The eddy covariance method is most accurate when the atmospheric conditions (wind, temperature, humidity, CO2) are steady, the underlying vegetation is homogeneous and it is situated on flat terrain for an extended distance upwind. When the eddy covariance method is applied over natural and complex landscapes or during atmospheric conditions that vary with time, the quantification of CO2 exchange between the biosphere and atmosphere must include measurements of atmospheric storage, flux divergence and advection.
Averaging CO2 flux measurements over long periods (days to year) reduces random sampling error to relatively small values. Unfortunately, data gaps are inevitable when constructing long data records. Data gaps are generally filled with values produced from statistical and empirical models to produce daily and annual sums of CO2 exchange. Filling data gaps with empirical estimates do not introduce significant bias errors because the empirical algorithms are derived from large statistical populations. On the other hand, flux measurement errors can be biased at night when winds are light and intermittent. Nighttime bias errors tend to produce an underestimate in the measurement of ecosystem respiration.
Despite the sources of errors associated with long-term eddy flux measurements, many investigators are producing defensible estimates of annual carbon exchange. When measurements come from nearly ideal sites the error bound on the net annual exchange of CO2 is less than ±50 g C m−2 yr−1. Additional confidence in long-term measurements is growing because investigators are producing values of net ecosystem productivity that are converging with independent values produced by measuring changes in biomass and soil carbon, as long as the biomass inventory studies are conducted over multiple years.