Interactions of Vegetation and Climate: Remote Observations, Earth System Models, and the Amazon Forest
Quetin, Gregory Ross
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The natural composition of terrestrial ecosystems can be shaped by climate to take advantage of local environmental conditions. Ecosystem functioning, e.g. interaction between photosynthesis and temperature, can also acclimate to different climatological states. The combination of these two factors thus determines ecological-climate interactions. The ecosystem functioning also plays a key role in predicting the carbon cycle, hydrological cycle, terrestrial surface energy balance, and the feedbacks in the climate system. Predicting the response of the Earth's biosphere to global warming requires the ability to mechanistically represent the processes controlling ecosystem functioning through photosynthesis, respiration, and water use. The physical environment in a place shapes the vegetation there, but vegetation also has the potential to shape the environment, e.g. increased photosynthesis and transpiration moisten the atmosphere. These two-way ecoclimate interactions create the potential for feedbacks between vegetation at the physical environment that depend on the vegetation and the climate of a place, and can change throughout the year. In Chapter 1, we derive a global empirical map of the sensitivity of vegetation to climate using the response of satellite-observed greenness to interannual variations in temperature and precipitation. We infer mechanisms constraining ecosystem functioning by analyzing how the sensitivity of vegetation to climate varies across climate space. Our analysis yields empirical evidence for multiple physical and biological mediators of the sensitivity of vegetation to climate at large spatial scales. In hot and wet locations, vegetation is greener in warmer years despite temperatures likely exceeding thermally optimum conditions. However, sunlight generally increases during warmer years, suggesting that the increased stress from higher atmospheric water demand is offset by higher rates of photosynthesis. The sensitivity of vegetation transitions in sign (greener when warmer or drier to greener when cooler or wetter) along an emergent line in climate space with a slope of about 59 mm/yr/C, twice as steep as contours of aridity. The mismatch between these slopes is evidence at a global scale of the limitation of both water supply due to inefficiencies in plant access to rainfall, and plant physiological responses to atmospheric water demand. This empirical pattern can provide a functional constraint for process-based models, helping to improve predictions of the global-scale response of vegetation to a changing climate. In Chapter 2, we use observations of vegetation interaction with the physical environment to identify where ecosystem functioning is well simulated in an ensemble of Earth system models. We leverage this data-model comparison to hypothesize which physiological mechanisms - photosynthetic efficiency, respiration, water supply, atmospheric water demand, and sunlight availability - dominate the ecosystem response in places with different climates. The models are generally successful in reproducing the broad sign and shape of ecosystem function across climate space except for simulating generally lower leaf area during warmer years in places with hot wet climates. In addition, simulated ecosystem interaction with temperature is generally larger and changes more rapidly across a gradient of temperature than is observed. We hypothesize that the amplified interaction and change are both due to a lack of adaptation and acclimation in simulations. This discrepancy with observations suggests that simulated responses of vegetation to global warming, and feedbacks between vegetation and climate, are too strong in the models. Finally, models and observations share an abrupt threshold between dry regions and wet regions where strong positive vegetation response to precipitation falls to nearly zero in places receiving around 1000 mm/year. In Chapter 3, we investigate how ecoclimate interactions change across seasons in the Amazon basin. We use observations of solar induced fluorescence from the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO2) to statistically analyze the sensitivity of fluorescence to synoptic variations in temperature and precipitation. In addition to studying the sensitivity of vegetation to climate across seasons, we use OCO2 measurements of total column water vapor (TCWV) and CO2 concentration (XCO2) to investigate the influence of the Amazon basin vegetation on the CO2 concentration and water vapor of the atmosphere leaving the basin. Our analysis determines the seasonal importance of vegetation activity on the outflow of CO2 from the Amazon basin, while providing evidence that transpiration is primarily driven by variations in temperature during the dry season, rather than photosynthesis. We establish a statistical relationship between fluorescence (as a proxy for vegetation photosynthesis), temperature, and precipitation, as well as the difference between the outflow of atmospheric water vapor from the inflow water vapor, basin fluorescence, temperature, and precipitation.
- Atmospheric sciences