Tropical rainforest carbon sink declines during El Niño as a result of reduced photosynthesis and increased respiration rates

New Phytol. 2017 Oct;216(1):136-149. doi: 10.1111/nph.14724. Epub 2017 Aug 14.


Changes in tropical forest carbon sink strength during El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events can indicate future behavior under climate change. Previous studies revealed ˜6 Mg C ha-1 yr-1 lower net ecosystem production (NEP) during ENSO year 1998 compared with non-ENSO year 2000 in a Costa Rican tropical rainforest. We explored environmental drivers of this change and examined the contributions of ecosystem respiration (RE) and gross primary production (GPP) to this weakened carbon sink. For 1998-2000, we estimated RE using chamber-based respiration measurements, and we estimated GPP in two ways: using (1) the canopy process model MAESTRA, and (2) combined eddy covariance and chamber respiration data. MAESTRA-estimated GPP did not statistically differ from GPP estimated using approach 2, but was ˜ 28% greater than published GPP estimates for the same site and years using eddy covariance data only. A 7% increase in RE (primarily increased soil respiration) and a 10% reduction in GPP contributed equally to the difference in NEP between ENSO year 1998 and non-ENSO year 2000. A warming and drying climate for tropical forests may yield a weakened carbon sink from both decreased GPP and increased RE. Understanding physiological acclimation will be critical for the large carbon stores in these ecosystems.

Keywords: MAESTRA; carbon sequestration; carbon sources and sinks; climate variability; ecosystem carbon fluxes; eddy covariance; forest dynamics.

MeSH terms

  • Carbon Sequestration*
  • Cell Respiration
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology
  • Climate
  • Ecosystem
  • El Nino-Southern Oscillation*
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Photosynthesis*
  • Rainforest*
  • Seasons
  • Trees / growth & development
  • Trees / physiology