Evaluating nitrogen cycling in terrestrial biosphere models: a disconnect between the carbon and nitrogen cycles

Sian Kou-Giesbrecht, Vivek K Arora, Christian Seiler, Almut Arneth, Stefanie Falk, Atul K Jain, Fortunat Joos, Daniel Kennedy, Jürgen Knauer, Stephen Sitch, Michael O'Sullivan, Naiqing Pan, Qing Sun, Hanqin Tian, Nicolas Vuichard, Sönke Zaehle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Terrestrial carbon (C) sequestration is limited by nitrogen (N), an empirically established constraint that could intensify under CO2 fertilization and future global change. The terrestrial C sink is estimated to currently sequester approximately a third of annual anthropogenic CO2 emissions based on an ensemble of terrestrial biosphere models, which have been evaluated in their ability to reproduce observations of the C, water, and energy cycles. However, their ability to reproduce observations of N cycling and thus the regulation of terrestrial C sequestration by N have been largely unexplored. Here, we evaluate an ensemble of terrestrial biosphere models with coupled C-N cycling and their performance at simulating N cycling, outlining a framework for evaluating N cycling that can be applied across terrestrial biosphere models. We find that models exhibit significant variability across N pools and fluxes, simulating different magnitudes and trends over the historical period, despite their ability to generally reproduce the historical terrestrial C sink. Furthermore, there are no significant correlations between model performance in simulating N cycling and model performance in simulating C cycling, nor are there significant differences in model performance between models with different representations of fundamental N cycling processes. This suggests that the underlying N processes that regulate terrestrial C sequestration operate differently across models and appear to be disconnected from C cycling. Models tend to overestimate tropical biological N fixation, vegetation Cĝ€¯:ĝ€¯N ratio, and soil Cĝ€¯:ĝ€¯N ratio but underestimate temperate biological N fixation relative to observations. However, there is significant uncertainty associated with measurements of N cycling processes given their scarcity (especially relative to those of C cycling processes) and their high spatiotemporal variability. Overall, our results suggest that terrestrial biosphere models that represent coupled C-N cycling could be overestimating C storage per unit N, which could lead to biases in projections of the future terrestrial C sink under CO2 fertilization and future global change (let alone those without a representation of N cycling). More extensive observations of N cycling processes and comparisons against experimental manipulations are crucial to evaluate N cycling and its impact on C cycling and guide its development in terrestrial biosphere models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)767-795
Number of pages29
JournalEarth System Dynamics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 14 2023


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