Complex terrain influences ecosystem carbon responses to temperature and precipitation

W. M. Reyes, H. E. Epstein, X. Li, B. L. McGlynn, D. A. Riveros-Iregui, R. E. Emanuel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Terrestrial ecosystem responses to temperature and precipitation have major implications for the global carbon cycle. Case studies demonstrate that complex terrain, which accounts for more than 50% of Earth's land surface, can affect ecological processes associated with land-atmosphere carbon fluxes. However, no studies have addressed the role of complex terrain in mediating ecophysiological responses of land-atmosphere carbon fluxes to climate variables. We synthesized data from AmeriFlux towers and found that for sites in complex terrain, responses of ecosystem CO2 fluxes to temperature and precipitation are organized according to terrain slope and drainage area, variables associated with water and energy availability. Specifically, we found that for tower sites in complex terrain, mean topographic slope and drainage area surrounding the tower explained between 51% and 78% of site-to-site variation in the response of CO2 fluxes to temperature and precipitation depending on the time scale. We found no such organization among sites in flat terrain, even though their flux responses exhibited similar ranges. These results challenge prevailing conceptual framework in terrestrial ecosystem modeling that assumes that CO2 fluxes derive from vertical soil-plant-climate interactions. We conclude that the terrain in which ecosystems are situated can also have important influences on CO2 responses to temperature and precipitation. This work has implications for about 14% of the total land area of the conterminous U.S. This area is considered topographically complex and contributes to approximately 15% of gross ecosystem carbon production in the conterminous U.S.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1306-1317
Number of pages12
JournalGlobal Biogeochemical Cycles
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2017


  • carbon cycle
  • climate change
  • complex terrain
  • ecosystem responses to climate
  • land-atmosphere interactions
  • landscape ecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Atmospheric Science


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