There are two broad approaches to quantifying landscape C dynamics – by measuring changes in C stocks over time, or by measuring fluxes of C directly. However, these data may be patchy, and have gaps or biases. An alternative approach to generating C budgets has been to use process-based models, constructed to simulate the key processes involved in C exchange. However, the process of model building is arguably subjective, and parameters may be poorly defined. This paper demonstrates why data assimilation (DA) techniques – which combine stock and flux observations with a dynamic model – improve estimates of, and provide insights into, ecosystem carbon (C) exchanges. We use an ensemble Kalman filter (EnKF) to link a series of measurements with a simple box model of C transformations. Measurements were collected at a young ponderosa pine stand in central Oregon over a 3-year period, and include eddy flux and soil CO2 efflux data, litterfall collections, stem surveys, root and soil cores, and leaf area index data. The simple C model is a mass balance model with nine unknown parameters, tracking changes in C storage among five pools; foliar, wood and fine root pools in vegetation, and also fresh litter and soil organic matter (SOM) plus coarse woody debris pools. We nested the EnKF within an optimization routine to generate estimates from the data of the unknown parameters and the five initial conditions for the pools. The efficacy of the DA process can be judged by comparing the probability distributions of estimates produced with the EnKF analysis vs. those produced with reduced data or model alone. Using the model alone, estimated net ecosystem exchange of C (NEE)=−251±197 g C m−2 over the 3 years, compared with an estimate of −419±29 g C m−2 when all observations were assimilated into the model. The uncertainty on daily measurements of NEE via eddy fluxes was estimated at 0.5 g C m−2 day−1, but the uncertainty on assimilated estimates averaged 0.47 g C m−2 day−1, and only exceeded 0.5 g C m−2 day−1 on days where neither eddy flux nor soil efflux data were available. In generating C budgets, the assimilation process reduced the uncertainties associated with using data or model alone and the forecasts of NEE were statistically unbiased estimates. The results of the analysis emphasize the importance of time series as constraints. Occasional, rare measurements of stocks have limited use in constraining the estimates of other components of the C cycle. Long time series are particularly crucial for improving the analysis of pools with long time constants, such as SOM, woody biomass, and woody debris. Long-running forest stem surveys, and tree ring data, offer a rich resource that could be assimilated to provide an important constraint on C cycling of slow pools. For extending estimates of NEE across regions, DA can play a further important role, by assimilating remote-sensing data into the analysis of C cycles. We show, via sensitivity analysis, how assimilating an estimate of photosynthesis – which might be provided indirectly by remotely sensed data – improves the analysis of NEE.
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