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Review article2021Peer reviewedOpen access

Empirical and Earth system model estimates of boreal nitrogen fixation often differ: A pathway toward reconciliation

Hupperts, Stefan F.; Gerber, Stefan; Nilsson, Marie-Charlotte; Gundale, Michael J.


The impacts of global environmental change on productivity in northern latitudes will be contingent on nitrogen (N) availability. In circumpolar boreal ecosystems, nonvascular plants (i.e., bryophytes) and associated N-2-fixing diazotrophs provide one of the largest known N inputs but are rarely accounted for in Earth system models. Instead, most models link N-2-fixation with the functioning of vascular plants. Neglecting nonvascular N-2-fixation may be contributing toward high uncertainty that currently hinders model predictions in northern latitudes, where nonvascular N-2-fixing plants are more common. Adequately accounting for nonvascular N-2-fixation and its drivers could subsequently improve predictions of future N availability and ultimately, productivity, in northern latitudes. Here, we review empirical evidence of boreal nonvascular N-2-fixation responses to global change factors (elevated CO2, N deposition, warming, precipitation, and shading by vascular plants), and compare empirical findings with model predictions of N-2-fixation using nine Earth system models. The majority of empirical studies found positive effects of CO2, warming, precipitation, or light on nonvascular N-2-fixation, but N deposition strongly downregulated N-2-fixation in most empirical studies. Furthermore, we found that the responses of N-2-fixation to elevated CO2 were generally consistent between models and very limited empirical data. In contrast, empirical-model comparisons suggest that all models we assessed, and particularly those that scale N-2-fixation with net primary productivity or evapotranspiration, may be overestimating N-2-fixation under increasing N deposition. Overestimations could generate erroneous predictions of future N stocks in boreal ecosystems unless models adequately account for the drivers of nonvascular N-2-fixation. Based on our comparisons, we recommend that models explicitly treat nonvascular N-2-fixation and that field studies include more targeted measurements to improve model structures and parameterization.


boreal; bryophyte; diazotroph; Earth system model; elevated CO2; nitrogen deposition; nitrogen fixation; nonvascular

Published in

Global Change Biology
2021, Volume: 27, number: 22, pages: 5711-5725
Publisher: WILEY