: Forests play a major role in the global carbon cycle. Previous studies on the capacity of forests to sequester atmospheric CO2 have mostly focused on carbon uptake, but the roles of carbon turnover time and its spatiotemporal changes remain poorly understood. Here, we used long-term inventory data (1955-2018) from 695 mature forest plots to quantify temporal trends in living vegetation carbon turnover time across tropical, temperate, and cold climate zones, and compared plot data to eight Earth system models (ESMs). Long-term plots consistently showed decreases in living vegetation carbon turnover time, likely driven by increased tree mortality across all major climate zones. Changes in living vegetation carbon turnover time were negatively correlated with CO2 enrichment in both forest plot data and ESM simulations. However, plot-based correlations between living vegetation carbon turnover time and climate drivers such as precipitation and temperature diverged from those of ESM simulations. Our analyses suggest that forest carbon sinks are likely to be constrained by a decrease in living vegetation carbon turnover time, and accurate projections of forest carbon sink dynamics will require an improved representation of tree mortality processes and their sensitivity to climate in ESMs.
The mechanisms governing tree drought mortality and recovery remain a subject of inquiry and active debate given their role in the terrestrial carbon cycle and their concomitant impact on climate change. Counter-intuitively, many trees do not die during the drought itself. Indeed, observations globally have documented that trees often grow for several years after drought before mortality. A combination of meta-analysis and tree physiological models demonstrate that optimal carbon allocation after drought explains observed patterns of delayed tree mortality and provides a predictive recovery framework. Specifically, post-drought, trees attempt to repair water transport tissue and achieve positive carbon balance through regrowing drought-damaged xylem. Further, the number of years of xylem regrowth required to recover function increases with tree size, explaining why drought mortality increases with size. These results indicate that tree resilience to drought-kill may increase in the future, provided that CO2 fertilization facilitates more rapid xylem regrowth.
Future projections suggest an increase in drought globally with climate change. Current vegetation models typically regulate the plant photosynthetic response to soil moisture stress through an empirical function, rather than a mechanistic response where plant water potentials respond to changes in soil water. This representation of soil moisture stress may introduce significant uncertainty into projections for the terrestrial carbon cycle. We examined the use of the soil moisture limitation function in historical and future emissions scenarios in nine Earth system models. We found that soil moisture-limited productivity across models represented a large and uncertain component of the simulated carbon cycle, comparable to 3-286% of current global productivity. Approximately 40-80% of the intermodel variability was due to the functional form of the limitation equation alone. Our results highlight the importance of implementing mechanistic water limitation schemes in models and illuminate several avenues for improving projections of the land carbon sink.