Variation in above-ground forest biomass across broad climatic gradients


James C. Stegen, University of North Carolina, CB# 3280 Coker Hall, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, USA. E-mail:


Aim  An understanding of the relationship between forest biomass and climate is needed to predict the impacts of climate change on carbon stores. Biomass patterns have been characterized at geographically or climatically restricted scales, making it unclear if biomass is limited by climate in any general way at continental to global scales. Using a dataset spanning multiple climatic regions we evaluate the generality of published biomass–climate correlations. We also combine metabolic theory and hydraulic limits to plant growth to first derive and then test predictions for how forest biomass should vary with maximum individual tree biomass and the ecosystem water deficit.

Location  Temperate forests and dry, moist and wet tropical forests across North, Central and South America.

Methods  A forest biomass model was derived from allometric functions and power-law size distributions. Biomass and climate were correlated using extensive forest plot (276 0.1-ha plots), wood density and climate datasets. Climate variables included mean annual temperature, annual precipitation, their ratio, precipitation of the driest quarter, potential and actual evapotranspiration, and the ecosystem water deficit. The water deficit uniquely summarizes water balance by integrating water inputs from precipitation with water losses due to solar energy.

Results  Climate generally explained little variation in forest biomass, and mixed support was found for published biomass–climate relationships. Our theory indicated that maximum individual biomass governs forest biomass and is constrained by water deficit. Indeed, forest biomass was tightly coupled to maximum individual biomass and the upper bound of maximum individual biomass declined steeply with water deficit. Water deficit similarly constrained the upper bound of forest biomass, with most forests below the constraint.

Main conclusions  The results suggest that: (1) biomass–climate models developed at restricted geographic/climatic scales may not hold at broader scales; (2) maximum individual biomass is strongly related to forest biomass, suggesting that process-based models should focus on maximum individual biomass; (3) the ecosystem water deficit constrains biomass, but realized biomass often falls below the constraint; such that (4) biomass is not strongly limited by climate in most forests so that forest biomass may not predictably respond to changes in mean climate.