Large historical growth in global terrestrial gross primary production

Nature. 2017 Apr 5;544(7648):84-87. doi: 10.1038/nature22030.


Growth in terrestrial gross primary production (GPP)-the amount of carbon dioxide that is 'fixed' into organic material through the photosynthesis of land plants-may provide a negative feedback for climate change. It remains uncertain, however, to what extent biogeochemical processes can suppress global GPP growth. As a consequence, modelling estimates of terrestrial carbon storage, and of feedbacks between the carbon cycle and climate, remain poorly constrained. Here we present a global, measurement-based estimate of GPP growth during the twentieth century that is based on long-term atmospheric carbonyl sulfide (COS) records, derived from ice-core, firn and ambient air samples. We interpret these records using a model that simulates changes in COS concentration according to changes in its sources and sinks-including a large sink that is related to GPP. We find that the observation-based COS record is most consistent with simulations of climate and the carbon cycle that assume large GPP growth during the twentieth century (31% ± 5% growth; mean ± 95% confidence interval). Although this COS analysis does not directly constrain models of future GPP growth, it does provide a global-scale benchmark for historical carbon-cycle simulations.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Antarctic Regions
  • Atmosphere / chemistry
  • Carbon Cycle*
  • Carbon Dioxide / analysis
  • Carbon Dioxide / metabolism*
  • Carbon Sequestration
  • Climate Change / history*
  • Climate Change / statistics & numerical data
  • Feedback
  • Geographic Mapping
  • History, 20th Century
  • Ice Cover / chemistry
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Photosynthesis*
  • Plant Leaves / metabolism
  • Sulfur Oxides / analysis


  • Sulfur Oxides
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • carbonyl sulfide