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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2022

Ideas and perspectives: Allocation of carbon from net primary production in models is inconsistent with observations of the age of respired carbon

Sierra, Carlos A.; Ceballos-Nunez, Veronika; Hartmann, Henrik; Herrera-Ramirez, David; Metzler, Holger


Carbon allocation in vegetation is an important process in the terrestrial carbon cycle; it determines the fate of photoassimilates, and it has an impact on the time carbon spends in the terrestrial biosphere. Although previous studies have highlighted important conceptual issues in the definition and metrics used to assess carbon allocation, very little emphasis has been placed on the distinction between the allocation of carbon from gross primary production (GPP) and the allocation from net primary production (NPP). An important number of simulation models and conceptual frameworks are based on the concept that C is allocated from NPP, which implies that C is respired immediately after photosynthetic assimilation However, empirical work that estimates the age of respired CO2 from vegetation tissue (foliage, stems, roots) shows that it may take from years to decades to respire previously produced photosynthates. The transit time distribution of carbon in vegetation and ecosystems, a metric that provides an estimate of the age of respired carbon, indicates that vegetation pools respire carbon of a wide range of ages, on timescales that are in conflict with the assumption that autotrophic respiration only consumes recently fixed carbon. In this contribution, we attempt to provide compelling evidence based on recent research on the age of respired carbon and the theory of timescales of carbon in ecosystems, with the aim to promote a change in the predominant paradigm implemented in ecosystem models where carbon allocation is based on NPP. In addition, we highlight some implications for understanding and modeling carbon dynamics in terrestrial ecosystems.

Published in

2022, Volume: 19, number: 16, pages: 3727-3738