Emergent climate and CO2 sensitivities of net primary productivity in ecosystem models do not agree with empirical data in temperate forests of eastern North America

Christine R. Rollinson, Yao Liu, Ann Raiho, David J.P. Moore, Jason McLachlan, Daniel A. Bishop, Alex Dye, Jaclyn H. Matthes, Amy Hessl, Thomas Hickler, Neil Pederson, Benjamin Poulter, Tristan Quaife, Kevin Schaefer, Jörg Steinkamp, Michael C. Dietze

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Ecosystem models show divergent responses of the terrestrial carbon cycle to global change over the next century. Individual model evaluation and multimodel comparisons with data have largely focused on individual processes at subannual to decadal scales. Thus far, data-based evaluations of emergent ecosystem responses to climate and CO2 at multidecadal and centennial timescales have been rare. We compared the sensitivity of net primary productivity (NPP) to temperature, precipitation, and CO2 in ten ecosystem models with the sensitivities found in tree-ring reconstructions of NPP and raw ring-width series at six temperate forest sites. These model-data comparisons were evaluated at three temporal extents to determine whether the rapid, directional changes in temperature and CO2 in the recent past skew our observed responses to multiple drivers of change. All models tested here were more sensitive to low growing season precipitation than tree-ring NPP and ring widths in the past 30 years, although some model precipitation responses were more consistent with tree rings when evaluated over a full century. Similarly, all models had negative or no response to warm-growing season temperatures, while tree-ring data showed consistently positive effects of temperature. Although precipitation responses were least consistent among models, differences among models to CO2 drive divergence and ensemble uncertainty in relative change in NPP over the past century. Changes in forest composition within models had no effect on climate or CO2 sensitivity. Fire in model simulations reduced model sensitivity to climate and CO2, but only over the course of multiple centuries. Formal evaluation of emergent model behavior at multidecadal and multicentennial timescales is essential to reconciling model projections with observed ecosystem responses to past climate change. Future evaluation should focus on improved representation of disturbance and biomass change as well as the feedbacks with moisture balance and CO2 in individual models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2755-2767
Number of pages13
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2017


  • climate change
  • climate sensitivity
  • ecosystem model
  • emergent response
  • model-data comparison
  • net primary productivity
  • paleoecology
  • tree rings

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • General Environmental Science


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