Open Access Research

Impacts of large-scale climatic disturbances on the terrestrial carbon cycle

Tim Erbrecht1* and Wolfgang Lucht12

Author Affiliations

1 Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, PO Box 6012303, D-14412 Potsdam, Germany

2 Institute of Geoecology, Potsdam University, PO Box 601553, D-14415 Potsdam, Germany

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Carbon Balance and Management 2006, 1:7  doi:10.1186/1750-0680-1-7

Published: 27 July 2006



The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere steadily increases as a consequence of anthropogenic emissions but with large interannual variability caused by the terrestrial biosphere. These variations in the CO2 growth rate are caused by large-scale climate anomalies but the relative contributions of vegetation growth and soil decomposition is uncertain. We use a biogeochemical model of the terrestrial biosphere to differentiate the effects of temperature and precipitation on net primary production (NPP) and heterotrophic respiration (Rh) during the two largest anomalies in atmospheric CO2 increase during the last 25 years. One of these, the smallest atmospheric year-to-year increase (largest land carbon uptake) in that period, was caused by global cooling in 1992/93 after the Pinatubo volcanic eruption. The other, the largest atmospheric increase on record (largest land carbon release), was caused by the strong El NiƱo event of 1997/98.


We find that the LPJ model correctly simulates the magnitude of terrestrial modulation of atmospheric carbon anomalies for these two extreme disturbances. The response of soil respiration to changes in temperature and precipitation explains most of the modelled anomalous CO2 flux.


Observed and modelled NEE anomalies are in good agreement, therefore we suggest that the temporal variability of heterotrophic respiration produced by our model is reasonably realistic. We therefore conclude that during the last 25 years the two largest disturbances of the global carbon cycle were strongly controlled by soil processes rather then the response of vegetation to these large-scale climatic events.