Assessing Model Predictions of Carbon Dynamics in Global Drylands

Dominic Fawcett, Andrew M. Cunliffe, Stephen Sitch, Michael O’Sullivan, Karen Anderson, Richard E. Brazier, Timothy C. Hill, Peter Anthoni, Almut Arneth, Vivek K. Arora, Peter R. Briggs, Daniel S. Goll, Atul K. Jain, Xiaojun Li, Danica Lombardozzi, Julia E.M.S. Nabel, Benjamin Poulter, Roland Séférian, Hanqin Tian, Nicolas ViovyJean Pierre Wigneron, Andy Wiltshire, Soenke Zaehle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Drylands cover ca. 40% of the land surface and are hypothesised to play a major role in the global carbon cycle, controlling both long-term trends and interannual variation. These insights originate from land surface models (LSMs) that have not been extensively calibrated and evaluated for water-limited ecosystems. We need to learn more about dryland carbon dynamics, particularly as the transitory response and rapid turnover rates of semi-arid systems may limit their function as a carbon sink over multi-decadal scales. We quantified aboveground biomass carbon (AGC; inferred from SMOS L-band vegetation optical depth) and gross primary productivity (GPP; from PML-v2 inferred from MODIS observations) and tested their spatial and temporal correspondence with estimates from the TRENDY ensemble of LSMs. We found strong correspondence in GPP between LSMs and PML-v2 both in spatial patterns (Pearson’s r = 0.9 for TRENDY-mean) and in inter-annual variability, but not in trends. Conversely, for AGC we found lesser correspondence in space (Pearson’s r = 0.75 for TRENDY-mean, strong biases for individual models) and in the magnitude of inter-annual variability compared to satellite retrievals. These disagreements likely arise from limited representation of ecosystem responses to plant water availability, fire, and photodegradation that drive dryland carbon dynamics. We assessed inter-model agreement and drivers of long-term change in carbon stocks over centennial timescales. This analysis suggested that the simulated trend of increasing carbon stocks in drylands is in soils and primarily driven by increased productivity due to CO2 enrichment. However, there is limited empirical evidence of this 50-year sink in dryland soils. Our findings highlight important uncertainties in simulations of dryland ecosystems by current LSMs, suggesting a need for continued model refinements and for greater caution when interpreting LSM estimates with regards to current and future carbon dynamics in drylands and by extension the global carbon cycle.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number790200
JournalFrontiers in Environmental Science
StatePublished - Apr 27 2022


  • aboveground biomass
  • drylands
  • land surface models (LSM)
  • model evaluation
  • productivity
  • vegetation optical depth (VOD)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Environmental Science


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