Lead Authors:
Deborah N. Huntzinger, Northern Arizona University
Abhishek Chatterjee, Universities Space Research Association and NASA Global Modeling and Assimilation Office
Contributing Authors:
David J. P. Moore, University of Arizona
Sara Ohrel, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Tristram O. West, DOE Office of Science
Benjamin Poulter, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Anthony P. Walker, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
John Dunne, NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
Sarah R. Cooley, Ocean Conservancy
Anna M. Michalak, Carnegie Institution for Science and Stanford University
Maria Tzortziou, City University of New York
Lori Bruhwiler, NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory
Adam Rosenblatt, University of North Florida
Yiqi Luo, Northern Arizona University
Peter J. Marcotullio, Hunter College, City University of New York
Joellen Russell, University of Arizona
Science Lead:
Melanie A. Mayes, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Review Editor:
Tara Hudiburg, University of Idaho
Federal Liaisons:
Elisabeth Larson, North American Carbon Program and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Science Systems and Applications Inc.
John Schade, National Science Foundation
Karina V. R. Schäfer, National Science Foundation

Future of the North American Carbon Cycle

In Earth’s past and over geological time, the global carbon cycle and Earth’s climate have changed as a result of external factors and complex interactions within the Earth system (see Ch. 1: Overview of the Global Carbon Cycle for more details). In addition, carbon cycle feedbacks with the climate system can both amplify and dampen the effects of these external forcings (Graven 2016).

The global carbon cycle can be viewed as a system of reservoirs (e.g., atmosphere, ocean, and land). A reservoir’s size (or pool) depends on the balance of carbon flowing into and out of it (i.e., the net flux; see Ch. 1: Overview of the Global Carbon Cycle). Because Earth’s carbon cycle is a closed system in which outputs from one reservoir are inputs to another, knowing how and why the amount of carbon stored in a reservoir is changing requires understanding the different processes affecting the reservoir’s carbon inputs and outputs. In addition, the processes that affect the size of carbon flows (fluxes) are often influenced by the amount of carbon stored in the reservoir (i.e., the reservoir’s size). For the amount of carbon stored in these vast reservoirs to shift noticeably, a net change in the balance of inputs and outputs (i.e., the net flux) must be either large or sustained long enough for the change to accumulate.

The amount of atmospheric CO2 depends on the balance between CO2 emissions to the atmosphere and carbon uptake by the land and ocean (see Ch. 8: Observations of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Methane). Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution around 1750, fossil fuel extraction and burning have transferred a net 375 ± 30 Pg C from geological reservoirs to the atmosphere (Ciais et al., 2013). In addition, increasing conversion of forests to agricultural land, growing demand for wood, and other factors of land-use change have transferred carbon from vegetation and soil reservoirs to the atmosphere. Only about half of the CO2 emitted from fossil fuel burning, industry (e.g., cement manufacturing), and land-use change has accumulated in the atmosphere. The rest has been taken up by the land and the ocean. The current strength of land and ocean carbon uptake from the atmosphere is the result of complex interactions among many factors (Ciais et al., 2013). Details about these processes and their current budget, at both global and North American scales, are provided in detail in Ch. 1: Overview of the Global Carbon Cycle and Ch. 2: The North American Carbon Budget.

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