Effects of climate extremes on the terrestrial carbon cycle: concepts, processes and potential future impacts

Dorothea Frank, Markus Reichstein, Michael Bahn, David Frank, Kirsten Thonicke, Miguel D Mahecha, Pete Smith, Marijn van der Velde, Sara Vicca, Flurin Babst, Christian Beer, Nina Buchmann, Josep G Canadell, Philippe Ciais, Wolfgang Cramer, Andreas Ibrom, Franco Miglietta, Ben Poulter, Anja Rammig, Sonia I SeneviratneAriane Walz, Martin Wattenbach, Miguel A Zavala, Jakob Zscheischler

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Extreme droughts, heat waves, frosts, precipitation, wind storms and other climate extremes may impact the structure, composition, and functioning of terrestrial ecosystems, and thus carbon cycling and its feedbacks to the climate system. Yet, the interconnected avenues through which climate extremes drive ecological and physiological processes and alter the carbon balance are poorly understood. Here we review literature on carbon-cycle relevant responses of ecosystems to extreme climatic events. Given that impacts of climate extremes are considered disturbances, we assume the respective general disturbance-induced mechanisms and processes to also operate in an extreme context. The paucity of well-defined studies currently renders a quantitative meta-analysis impossible, but permits us to develop a deductive framework for identifying the main mechanisms (and coupling thereof) through which climate extremes may act on the carbon cycle. We find that ecosystem responses can exceed the duration of the climate impacts via lagged effects on the carbon cycle. The expected regional impacts of future climate extremes will depend on changes in the probability and severity of their occurrence, on the compound effects and timing of different climate extremes, and on the vulnerability of each land-cover type modulated by management. Though processes and sensitivities differ among biomes, based on expert opinion we expect forests to exhibit the largest net effect of extremes due to their large carbon pools and fluxes, potentially large indirect and lagged impacts, and long recovery time to re-gain previous stocks. At the global scale, we presume that droughts have the strongest and most widespread effects on terrestrial carbon cycling. Comparing impacts of climate extremes identified via remote sensing vs. ground-based observational case studies reveals that many regions in the (sub-)tropics are understudied. Hence, regional investigations are needed to allow a global upscaling of the impacts of climate extremes on global carbon-climate feedbacks. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2861-2880
Number of pages19
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number8
Early online date12 May 2015
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2015

Bibliographical note

This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

This work emerged from the CARBO-Extreme project, funded by the European
Community’s 7th framework programme under grant agreement (FP7-ENV-2008-1-226701). We are grateful to the Reviewers and the Subject Editor for helpful guidance. We thank to Silvana Schott for graphic support. Mirco Miglivacca provided helpful comments on the manuscript. Michael Bahn acknowledges support from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF; P22214-B17). Sara Vicca is a postdoctoral research associate of the Fund for Scientific Research – Flanders. Wolfgang Cramer contributes to the Labex OT-Med (n° ANR-11-
LABX-0061) funded by the French government through the A*MIDEX project (n° ANR-11-IDEX-0001-02). Flurin Babst acknowledges support from the Swiss National Science Foundation (P300P2_154543).


  • carbon cycle
  • climate change
  • climate extremes
  • climate variability
  • disturbance
  • terrestrial ecosystems


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