Spring hydrology determines summer net carbon uptake in northern ecosystems

Yonghong Yi, University of Montana - Missoula
John S. Kimball, University of Montana - Missoula
Rolf H. Reichle, NASA

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Increased photosynthetic activity and enhanced seasonal CO2 exchange of northern ecosystems have been observed from a variety of sources including satellite vegetation indices (such as the normalized difference vegetation index; NDVI) and atmospheric CO2 measurements. Most of these changes have been attributed to strong warming trends in the northern high latitudes (≥50° N). Here we analyze the interannual variation of summer net carbon uptake derived from atmospheric CO2 measurements and satellite NDVI in relation to surface meteorology from regional observational records. We find that increases in spring precipitation and snow pack promote summer net carbon uptake of northern ecosystems independent of air temperature effects. However, satellite NDVI measurements still show an overall benefit of summer photosynthetic activity from regional warming and limited impact of spring precipitation. This discrepancy is attributed to a similar response of photosynthesis and respiration to warming and thus reduced sensitivity of net ecosystem carbon uptake to temperature. Further analysis of boreal tower eddy covariance CO2 flux measurements indicates that summer net carbon uptake is positively correlated with early growing-season surface soil moisture, which is also strongly affected by spring precipitation and snow pack based on analysis of satellite soil moisture retrievals. This is attributed to strong regulation of spring hydrology on soil respiration in relatively wet boreal and arctic ecosystems. These results document the important role of spring hydrology in determining summer net carbon uptake and contrast with prevailing assumptions of dominant cold temperature limitations to high-latitude ecosystems. Our results indicate potentially stronger coupling of boreal/arctic water and carbon cycles with continued regional warming trends.