Alexander J. Winkler, Ranga B. Myneni, Georgii A. Alexandrov, Victor Brovkin. Earth system models underestimate carbon fixation by plants in the high latitudes. Nature Communications, volume 10, 885, 2019. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-08633-z
Most Earth system models agree that land will continue to store carbon due to the physiological effects of rising CO2 concentration and climatic changes favoring plant growth in temperature-limited regions. But they largely disagree on the amount of carbon uptake. The historical CO2 increase has resulted in enhanced photosynthetic carbon fixation (Gross Primary Production, GPP), as can be evidenced from atmospheric CO2 concentration and satellite leaf area index measurements. Here, we use leaf area sensitivity to ambient CO2 from the past 36 years of satellite measurements to obtain an Emergent Constraint (EC) estimate of GPP enhancement in the northern high latitudes at two-times the pre-industrial CO2 concentration (3.4 ± 0.2 Pg C yr−1). We derive three independent comparable estimates from CO2 measurements and atmospheric inversions. Our EC estimate is 60% larger than the conventionally used multi-model average (44% higher at the global scale). This suggests that most models largely underestimate photosynthetic carbon fixation and therefore likely overestimate future atmospheric CO2 abundance and ensuing climate change, though not proportionately.