Biotic feedbacks in the warming of the earth

George M. Woodwell, Fred T. Mackenzie, Richard A. Houghton, Michael J. Apps, Eville Gorham, Eric A. Davidson

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A positive correlation exists between temperature and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane over the last 220,000 years of glacial history, including two glacial and three interglacial periods. A similar correlation exists for the Little Ice Age and for contemporary data. Although the dominant processes responsible may be different over the three time periods, a warming trend, once established, appears to be consistently reinforced through the further accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere; a cooling trend is reinforced by a reduction in the release of heat-trapping gases. Over relatively short periods of years to decades, the correspondence between temperature and greenhouse gas concentrations may be due largely to changes in the metabolism of terrestrial ecosystems, whose respiration, including microbial respiration in soils, responds more sensitively, and with a greater total effect, to changes in temperature than does gross photosynthesis. Despite the importance of positive feedbacks and the recent rise in surface temperatures, terrestrial ecosystems seem to have been accumulating carbon over the last decades. The mechanisms responsible are thought to include increased nitrogen mobilization as a result of human activities, and two negative feedbacks: CO2 fertilization and the warming of the earth, itself, which is thought to lead to an accumulation of carbon on land through increased mineralization of nutrients and, as a result, increased plant growth. The relative importance of these mechanisms is unknown, but collectively they appear to have been more important over the last century than a positive feedback through warming-enhanced respiration. The recent rate of increase in temperature, however, leads to concern that we are entering a new phase in climate, one in which the enhanced greenhouse effect is emerging as the dominant influence on the temperature of the earth. Two observations support this concern. One is the negative correlation between temperature and global uptake of carbon by terrestrial ecosystems. The second is the positive correlation between temperature and the heat-trapping gas content of the atmosphere. While CO2 fertilization or nitrogen mobilization (either directly or through a warming-enhanced mineralization) may partially counter the effects of a warming-enhanced respiration, the effect of temperature on the metabolism of terrestrial ecosystems suggests that these processes will not entirely compensate for emissions of carbon resulting directly from industrial and land-use practices and indirectly from the warming itself. The magnitude of the positive feedback, releasing additional CO2, CH4, and N2O, is potentially large enough to affect the rate of warming significantly.
Original languageUndefined/Unknown
Pages (from-to)495-518
Number of pages24
JournalClimatic Change
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 1998


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