Opening the black box of plant nutrient uptake under warming predicts global patterns in community biomass and biological carbon storage

5 June 2019

Marx, Jori; Rall, Björn; Phillips, Helen; Brose, Ulrich

The effect of climate change on the amount of carbon stored in the different biological compartments of complex natural communities is relevant for a range of ecosystem functions and services. Temperature-dependency of many physiological and ecological processes drives this storage capacity. As opposed to other physiological rates, the temperature-dependence of nutrient uptake by plants has, to date, not been thoroughly investigated and therefore was not explicitly included in food web models. In a meta-study, we extracted experimental data to establish the temperature-dependence of the parameters determining plant nutrient uptake. Overall, we found an increase in the maximum uptake rate, as well as the half-saturation density. As the respiration rates of plants (biomass loss) increase more strongly than the nutrient uptake rates (driving biomass gain under nutrient limitation), our results suggest that warming should decrease plant biomass. We applied these temperature-dependent nutrient uptake rates by plants to a model of a three-level food-chain composed of two nutrients, a plant pool, and an herbivore pool. Having established plant nutrient uptake rates based on real data to replace the previously used assumption of logistic growth, we were able to use realistic natural nutrient deposition rates as the input variables in this model. This mechanistic model approach allowed us to show the quantitative responses of natural communities to realistic fertilization rates for the first time. We ran the model under realistic nutrient supply scenarios based on deposition data from the literature, adding a scenario of anthropogenic fertilization. We found decreases in overall community biomass with increasing temperature, but the intensity of this decrease varied strongly depending on the nutrient supply scenario. Our findings highlight the importance of including other global change drivers besides warming, as they can mediate the temperature impact on changes in global carbon storage and thus biomass-related ecosystem services.