Recent advances in biologically based ecosystem models of the coupled terrestrial, hydrological, carbon, and nutrient cycles have provided new perspectives on the terrestrial biosphere’s behavior globally, over a range of time scales. We used the terrestrial ecosystem model Century to examine relationships between carbon, nitrogen, and water dynamics. The model, run to a quasi-steady-state, shows strong correlations between carbon, water, and nitrogen fluxes that lead to equilibration of wateryenergy and nitrogen limitation of net primary productivity. This occurs because as the water flux increases, the potentials for carbon uptake (photosynthesis), and inputs and losses of nitrogen, all increase. As the flux of carbon increases, the amount of nitrogen that can be captured into organic matter and then recycled also increases. Because most plant-available nitrogen is derived from internal recycling, this latter process is critical to sustaining high productivity in environments where water and energy are plentiful. At steady-state, wateryenergy and nitrogen limitation ‘‘equilibrate,’’ but because the water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles have different response times, inclusion of nitrogen cycling into ecosystem models adds behavior at longer time scales than in purely biophysical models. The tight correlations among nitrogen fluxes with evapotranspiration implies that either climate change or changes to nitrogen inputs (from fertilization or air pollution) will have large and long-lived effects on both productivity and nitrogen losses through hydrological and trace gas pathways. Comprehensive analyses of the role of ecosystems in the carbon cycle must consider mechanisms that arise from the interaction of the hydrological, carbon, and nutrient cycles in ecosystems.


Earth Sciences, Earth Systems Research Center

Publication Date


Journal Title

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America


National Academy of Sciences

Document Type

Conference Proceeding


© 1997 by The National Academy of Sciences