Atmospheric deposition, CO2, and change in the land carbon sink

The reduction in acidic deposition of nitrogen and Sulphur should lead to a slow recovery of forests to a pre-acid deposition state. Photo by Pixabay


Human activities result in increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 that affects the terrestrial biosphere in multiple ways: warming the climate, increasing photosynthesis (CO2 fertilization), decreasing transpiration by stimulating stomatal closure and changing the stoichiometry of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus (C:N:P) in ecosystem carbon pools. Concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) have continued to increase whereas, due to air-quality policies, atmospheric deposition of sulphur and nitrogen has declined in Europe and the USA during recent decades.

Terrestrial ecosystems are key components of the global carbon cycle, as indicated by the fact that, since the 1960s, they have been sequestering an average of about 30% of the annual anthropogenic CO2 emitted into the atmosphere.

In a new study in the journal Scientific Reports authors used time series of flux observations from 23 forests distributed throughout Europe and the USA, and generalised mixed models to end up finding  that forest-level net ecosystem production and gross primary production have increased by 1% annually from 1995 to 2011.

In this study, authors test the hypothesis that gross primary production, ecosystem respiration and the net C-sink strength (net land-atmosphere CO2 flux) or net ecosystem production (NEP), have accelerated during the last two decades because of the increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations and temperature, and because of the recovery from high loads of S deposition in Europe and North America. “We expected these deposition reductions to have modulated the biogeochemical effects of rising CO2” added Dr. Marcos Fernández-Martínez from CREAF-CSIC Barcelona

Statistical models indicated that increasing atmospheric CO2 was the most important factor driving the increasing strength of carbon sinks in these forests. Authors also found that the reduction of sulphur deposition in Europe and the USA led to higher recovery in ecosystem respiration than in gross primary production, thus limiting the increase of carbon sequestration. By contrast, the study shows that trends in climate and nitrogen deposition did not significantly contribute to changing carbon fluxes during the studied period. “Our findings support the hypothesis of a general CO2-fertilization effect on vegetation growth and suggest that, so far unknown, sulphur deposition plays a significant role in the carbon balance of forests in industrialized regions”, said Prof. Josep Peñuelas from CREAF-CSIC Barcelona

“Our results show the need to include the effects of changing atmospheric composition, beyond CO2, to assess future dynamics of carbon-climate feedbacks not currently considered in earth system/climate modelling”, said Dr. Fernández-Martínez from CREAF-CSIC Barcelona

This study was funded by the European Research Council Synergy grant ERC-2013-SyG-610028, the Spanish Government project CGL2016-79835-P and the Catalan Government grant FI-2013

Journal Reference: Fernández-Martínez, M., Vicca, S., Janssens, I.A., Ciais, P., Obersteiner, M., Bartrons, M., Sardans, J., Verger, A., Canadell, J.G., Chevallier, F., Wang, X., Bernhofer, C., Curtis, P.S., Gianelle, D., Grünwald, T., Heinesch, B., Ibrom, A., Knohl, A., Laurila, T., Law, B.E., Limousin, J.M., Longdoz, B., Loustau, D., Mammarella, I., Matteucci, G., Monson, R.K., Montagnani, L., Moors, E.J., Munger, J.W., Papale, D., Piao, S.L., Peñuelas, J. 2017. Atmospheric deposition, CO2, and change in the land carbon sink. Scientific Reports.

Relative contribution of groundwater to plant transpiration estimated with stable isotopes

Water is generally taken up by roots (with important exceptions), so root structure and function should play a central role in research of plant-water relations. Photo by Pixabay


Water stored underground in the saturated and subsurface zones below the soil are important sources of water for plants in water-limited ecosystems. Arid and seasonally dry ecosystems contain the deepest root systems, and some species grow roots to depths of more than 4 m, even in temperate and tropical ecosystems. The presence of deep-rooted plants worldwide, however, suggests that the use of groundwater is not restricted to arid and seasonally dry ecosystems.

In a new study in the journal Scientific Reports authors compiled the available data (71 species) on the relative contribution of groundwater to plant water estimated using stable isotopes and mixing models, which provided information about relative groundwater use, and analysed their variation across different climates, seasons, plant types, edaphic conditions, and landscape positions.

Plant use of groundwater was more likely at sites with a pronounced dry season, and represented on average 49 per cent of transpired water in dry seasons and 28 per cent in wet seasons. The relative contribution of groundwater to plant-water uptake was higher on rocky substrates (saprolite, fractured bedrock), which had reduced groundwater uptake when this source was deep belowground.

Notably, authors found that the connectivity between groundwater pools and plant water is quantitatively larger and more widespread than reported by recent global estimations based on isotopic averaged values. Thus, “in order to improve the representation of groundwater-surface interactions in models, a quantification of the relative contribution of groundwater to transpiration and its variability across environmental gradients was required”, said Dr. Adrià Barbeta from CREAF-CSIC Barcelona, now in INRA Bourdeaux

Prof. Josep Peñuelas from CREAF-CSIC Barcelona claims also that “further research on plant-water sources in boreal, polar regions and tropical rainforests would help our understanding of the global patterns of groundwater uptake and may substantially improve the biosphere-atmosphere models by a realistic representation of this important component of the water cycle”.

This study was funded by the European Research Council Synergy grant ERC-2013-SyG-610028, the Spanish Government project CGL2016-79835-P and the Catalan Government grant FI-2013

Journal Reference: Barbeta, A., Peñuelas, J. 2017. Relative contribution of groundwater to plant transpiration estimated with stable isotopes. Scientific Reports

β-Ocimene, a Key Floral and Foliar Volatile Involved in Multiple Interactions between Plants and Other Organisms

Plants generally synthesize and emit species-specific floral volatile organic compounds (VOCs) mixtures to attract pollinators by mixing several of these common VOCs. Photo by Pexels


More than 1700 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have been identified in the floral scents of flowering plants. These VOCs are not equally distributed across the phylogeny of flowering plants, so that the commonness and predominance of these compounds in floral scents varies widely among species. Common floral VOCs have a widespread phylogenetic distribution, which means that they are present in the floral scents of many species from different plant families. Instead, less common floral VOCs are only present in plants that are pollinated by specific pollinator groups with specific innate preferences for those VOCs.

β-Ocimene is a very common plant volatile released in important amounts from the leaves and flowers of many plant species. This acyclic monoterpene can play several biological functions in plants, by potentially affecting floral visitors and also by mediating defensive responses to herbivory.

In a new study in the journal Molecules authors indicated that the ubiquity and high relative abundance of β-ocimene in the floral scents of species from most plant families and from different pollination syndromes (ranging from generalism to specialism) strongly suggest that this terpenoid may play an important role in the attraction of pollinators to flowers.

In this study authors compiled abundant evidence from published studies that supports β-ocimene as a generalist attractant of a wide spectrum of pollinators. They found no studies testing behavioural responses of pollinators to β-ocimene, that could directly demonstrate or deny the function of β-ocimene in pollinator attraction; but “several case studies support that the emissions of β-ocimene in flowers of different species follow marked temporal and spatial patterns of emission, which are typical from floral volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions that are involved in pollinator attraction”, said Dr. Gerard Farré-Armengol from CREAF-CSIC Barcelona, now in the University of Salzburg.

Furthermore, important β-ocimene emissions are induced from vegetative plant tissues after herbivory in many species, which have relevant functions in the establishment of tritrophic interactions. Authors thus conclude that β-ocimene is a key plant volatile with multiple relevant functions in plants, depending on the organ and the time of emission.

Experimental behavioural studies on pure β-ocimene conducted with pollinating insects will be necessary to prove the assumptions made here. “In view of the presented indirect evidences, we strongly encourage the inclusion of β-ocimene alone or in combination with other floral volatiles in coupled gas chromatography electroantennographic detection (GC-EAD) analyses and behavioural tests when conducting future studies in order to provide a solid experimental proof for the assumptions made in the study”, said Prof. Josep Peñuelas from CREAF-CSIC Barcelona.

This study was funded by the European Research Council Synergy grant ERC-2013-SyG-610028, the Spanish Government project CGL2016-79835-P and the Catalan Government grant FI-2013

Journal Reference: Farré-Armengol, G., Filella, I., Llusià, J., Peñuelas, J. 2017. β-Ocimene, a Key Floral and Foliar Volatile Involved in Multiple Interactions between Plants and Other Organisms. Molecules 2017, 22, 1148; doi: 10.3390/molecules22071148.

Temperature increase reduces global yields of major crops in four independent estimates

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Understanding climate change is critical to ensure global food security. In this study authors combine four analytical methods to assess the impact of increasing temperatures on yields of wheat, rice, maize and soybean. Photo by Pexels


All agricultural production is vulnerable to climate change including wheat, rice, maize and soybean that provide two-thirds of human caloric intake. Assessing the impact of global temperature increase on production of these major crops is therefore critical to maintain global food supply.

In a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences authors investigated the impacts of temperature on yields of the four crops by compiling extensive published results from four analytical methods: global grid-based and local point-based models, statistical regressions and field-warming experiments.

“By combining four different methods, our comprehensive assessment of the impacts of increasing temperatures on major global crops shows substantial risks for agricultural production, already stagnating in some parts of the world”, said Prof. Josep Peñuelas from CREAF-CSIC Barcelona.

The study shows that results from the different methods consistently indicate negative temperature impacts on crop yield at the global scale, generally underpinned by similar impacts at country and site scales. Without CO2 fertilization, effective adaptation and genetic improvement, each degree Celsius increase in global mean temperature would on average reduce global yields of wheat by 6.0%, rice by 3.2%, maize by 7.4% and soybean by 3.1%. In any case, researchers point out that results are highly heterogeneous across crops and geographical areas with some positive impact estimates.

Multi-method analyses improved the confidence in assessments of future climate impacts on global major crops, and suggest crop- and region-specific adaptation strategies to ensure food security for an increasing world population.

Journal Reference: Zhao, C., Liu, B., Piao, S., Wang, X., Lobell, D., Huang, Y., Huang, M., Yao, Y., Bassu, S., Ciais, P., Durand, J-L., Elliott, L., Ewert, F., Janssens, I., Li, T., Lin, E., Liu, Q., Martre, P., Müller, C., Peng, S., Peñuelas, J., Ruane, A., Wallach, D., Wang, T., Wu, D., Liu, Z., Zhu, Y., Zhu, Z., Asseng, S. 2017. Temperature increase reduces global yields of major crops in four independent estimates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The secret plant communication – Las comunicaciones secretas de las plantas

The websites of disseminating scientific knowledge SINC (La Ciencia es Notica) and NCYT (Notícias de la Ciencia y la Tecnología) have published an article on The secret plant communication, that includes declarations of Prof Josep Penuelas about Volatile organic compounds and plants communication.

SINC read the full text in Spanish

NCYT read the full text Spanish


Weakening temperature control on the interannual variations of spring carbon uptake across northern lands

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For the past decade, boreal forests have been a net carbon sink; but a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change show that the relationship between spring temperature and carbon uptake has recently shifted. Photo by Pexels


Ongoing spring warming allows the growing season to begin earlier, enhancing carbon uptake in northern ecosystems; but the sink-or-source status of arctic tundra cannot be deduced from current observations.

In a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change researchers use 34 years of atmospheric CO2 concentration measurements at Barrow, Alaska (BRW, 71 N) to show that the interannual relationship between spring temperature and carbon uptake has recently shifted. They use two indicators: the spring zero-crossing date of atmospheric CO2 (SZC) and the magnitude ofCO2 drawdown between May and June (SCC).

The previously reported strong correlation between SZC, SCC and spring land temperature (ST) was found in the first 17 years of measurements, but disappeared in the last 17 years. As a result, the sensitivity of both SZC and SCC to warming decreased. Simulations done in the study with an atmospheric transport model coupled to a terrestrial ecosystem model suggest that the weakened interannual correlation of SZC and SCC with ST in the last 17 years is attributable to the declining temperature response of spring net primary productivity (NPP) rather than to changes in heterotrophic respiration or in atmospheric transport patterns.

“Several mechanisms could explain the apparent weakening response of NPP in spring to interannual temperature variations.  A first possible mechanism is that winter warming comes with a loss of chilling, other possible mechanisms are the possible limitations of shorter day lengths when the growing season progressively advances earlier into the spring, and increasing occurrence of extreme events. Further studies are needed to verify these potential mechanisms”, said Prof. Josep Penuelas from CREAF-CSIC Barcelona.

Prof Penuelas notes that their results show that the linkage between spring carbon uptake and temperature is not a stable property of northern ecosystems. However, because of the relatively short run of CO2 observations, it remains uncertain whether the observed decrease in interannual correlation of spring carbon uptake with temperature reflects decadal variability, or a long-term shift in the ecological response of boreal and arctic regions to warming.

This study received support from the European Research Council Synergy grant ERC-2013-SyG-610028.

Journal Reference: Piao, S., Liu, Z., Wang, T.,Peng, S., Ciais, P., Huang, M., Ahlstrom, A., Burkhart, J., Chevallier, F., Janssens, I., Jeong, S., Lin, X., Mao, J., Miller, J., Mohammat, A., Myneni, R., Penuelas, J., Shi, X., Stohl, A., Yao, Y., Zhu, Z., Tans, P. 2017. Weakening temperature control on the inter-annual variations of spring carbon uptake across northern lands. Nature Climate Change, doi: 10.1038/nclimate3277.

Pathways for balancing CO2 emissions and sinks

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Oil pumps and Industry emissions. Photo by Pexels


Carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can be reduced in two ways — by cutting our emissions, or by removing it from the atmosphere, for example through plants, the ocean, and soil.

In December 2015 in Paris, leaders committed to achieve global, net decarbonization of human activities before 2100. This achievement would halt and even reverse anthropogenic climate change through the net removal of carbon from the atmosphere. However, the Paris documents contain few specific prescriptions for emissions mitigation, leaving the timing and details of these efforts to individual countries.

In a new study in the journal Nature Communications researchers project energy and land use emissions mitigation pathways through 2100, subject to best-available parameterization of carbon-climate feedbacks and interdependencies. Researchers used a global model of the carbon system that accounts for carbon release and uptake through both natural and anthropogenic activities.

“The study shows that the combined energy and land-use system should deliver zero net anthropogenic emissions well before 2040 in order to assure the attainability of a 1.5°C target by 2100,” says IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program Director Michael Obersteiner.

“Fossil fuel consumption will likely need to be reduced below a quarter of primary energy supply by 2100, and the allowable consumption rate drops even further if negative emissions technologies remain technologically of economically unfeasible at global scale”, said Dr. Brian Walsh from International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria, now a World Bank consultant.

Researchers find that, barring unforeseen and transformative Technological advancement, anthropogenic emissions need to peak within the next ten years in order to maintain realistic pathways to meeting the COP21 emissions and warming targets. In this sense, according to the study, fossil fuel consumption would likely need to be reduced to less than 25% of the global energy supply by 2100, compared to 95% today. At the same time, land use change, such as deforestation, must be decreased. This would lead to a 42% decrease in cumulative emissions by the end of the century compared to a business as usual scenario.

“This study gives a broad accounting of the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, where it comes from and where it goes. We take into account not just emissions from fossil fuels, but also agriculture, land use, food production, bioenergy, and carbon uptake by natural ecosystems”, said Michael Obersteiner.

The study compares four different scenarios for future energy development, with a range of mixtures of renewable and fossil energy. In a “high-renewable” scenario where wind, solar, and bioenergy increase by around 5% a year, net emissions could peak by 2022, the study shows. Yet without substantial negative emissions technologies, that pathway would still lead to a global average temperature rise of 2.5°C, missing the Paris Agreement target.

Walsh notes that the high-renewable energy scenario is ambitious, but not impossible — global production of renewable energy grew 2.6% between 2013 and 2014, according to the IEA. In contrast, the study finds that continued reliance on fossil fuels (with growth rates of renewables between 2% and 3% per year), would cause carbon emissions to peak only at the end of the century, causing an estimated 3.5°C global temperature rise by 2100.

“Our results show thus that the severe consequences of global warming on ecosystems and society can only be avoided by achieving the goal of strictly carbon-neutral societies as soon as possible.” said Prof. Josep Penuelas from CREAF-CSIC Barcelona.


A new model

The study is one of the first published results from the newly developed FeliX model, a system dynamics model of social, economic, and environmental earth systems and their interdependencies. The model is freely available for download and use at

This study received support from the European Research Council Synergy grant ERC-2013-SyG-610028

Journal Reference: Walsh, B., Ciais, P., Janssens, I.A., Peñuelas, J., Riahi, K., Rydzak, F., van Vuuren, D., Obersteiner, M. 2017. Pathways for balancing CO2 emissions and sinks. Nature Communications.

Human population growth offsets climate-driven increase in woody vegetation in sub-Saharan Africa

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Woody cover has actually increased over the past 20 years in large parts of Africa, and in particular in drylands. Researchers attribute much of this increase to changes in rainfall and the growing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. Photo by Pixabay


The rapidly growing human population in sub-Saharan Africa generates increasing demand for agricultural land and forest products, which presumably leads to deforestation. Conversely, a greening of African drylands has been reported, but this has been difficult to associate with changes in woody vegetation. There is thus an incomplete understanding of how woody vegetation responds to socio-economic and environmental change.

Deforestation in Africa has been high on the environmental agenda for decades. In a new study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, researchers used a passive microwave Earth observation data set to demonstrate that the realities are more complex.