The ongoing and projected warming in the northern high latitudes (NHL; poleward of 60 °N) may lead to dramatic changes in the terrestrial carbon cycle. On the one hand, warming and increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration stimulate vegetation productivity, taking up CO2. On the other hand, warming accelerates the decomposition of soil organic matter (SOM), releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Here, the NHL terrestrial carbon storage is investigated based on 10 models from the Coupled Carbon Cycle Climate Model Intercomparison Project. Our analysis suggests that the NHL will be a carbon sink of 0.3 ± 0.3 Pg C yr−1 by 2100. The cumulative land organic carbon storage is modeled to increase by 38 ± 20 Pg C over 1901 levels, of which 17 ± 8 Pg C comes from vegetation (43%) and 21 ± 16 Pg C from the soil (8%). Both CO2 fertilization and warming enhance vegetation growth in the NHL. Although the intense warming there enhances SOM decomposition, soil organic carbon (SOC) storage continues to increase in the 21st century. This is because higher vegetation productivity leads to more turnover (litterfall) into the soil, a process that has received relatively little attention. However, the projected growth rate of SOC begins to level off after 2060 when SOM decomposition accelerates at high temperature and then catches up with the increasing input from vegetation turnover. Such competing mechanisms may lead to a switch of the NHL SOC pool from a sink to a source after 2100 under more intense warming, but large uncertainty exists due to our incomplete understanding of processes such as the strength of the CO2 fertilization effect, permafrost, and the role of soil moisture. Unlike the CO2 fertilization effect that enhances vegetation productivity across the world, global warming increases the productivity at high latitudes but tends to reduce it in the tropics and mid-latitudes. These effects are further enhanced as a result of positive carbon cycle–climate feedbacks due to additional CO2 and warming.
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