Articles | Volume 7, issue 5
Model description paper
12 Sep 2014
Model description paper |  | 12 Sep 2014

A model using marginal efficiency of investment to analyze carbon and nitrogen interactions in terrestrial ecosystems (ACONITE Version 1)

R. Q. Thomas and M. Williams

Abstract. Carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycles are coupled in terrestrial ecosystems through multiple processes including photosynthesis, tissue allocation, respiration, N fixation, N uptake, and decomposition of litter and soil organic matter. Capturing the constraint of N on terrestrial C uptake and storage has been a focus of the Earth System Modeling community. However, there is little understanding of the trade-offs and sensitivities of allocating C and N to different tissues in order to optimize the productivity of plants. Here we describe a new, simple model of ecosystem C–N cycling and interactions (ACONITE), that builds on theory related to plant economics in order to predict key ecosystem properties (leaf area index, leaf C : N, N fixation, and plant C use efficiency) based on the outcome of assessments of the marginal change in net C or N uptake associated with a change in allocation of C or N to plant tissues. We simulated and evaluated steady-state ecosystem stocks and fluxes in three different forest ecosystems types (tropical evergreen, temperate deciduous, and temperate evergreen). Leaf C : N differed among the three ecosystem types (temperate deciduous < tropical evergreen < temperature evergreen), a result that compared well to observations from a global database describing plant traits. Gross primary productivity (GPP) and net primary productivity (NPP) estimates compared well to observed fluxes at the simulation sites. Simulated N fixation at steady-state, calculated based on relative demand for N and the marginal return on C investment to acquire N, was an order of magnitude higher in the tropical forest than in the temperate forest, consistent with observations. A sensitivity analysis revealed that parameterization of the relationship between leaf N and leaf respiration had the largest influence on leaf area index and leaf C : N. A parameter governing how photosynthesis scales with day length had the largest influence on total vegetation C, GPP, and NPP. Multiple parameters associated with photosynthesis, respiration, and N uptake influenced the rate of N fixation. Overall, our ability to constrain leaf area index and allow spatially and temporally variable leaf C : N can help address challenges simulating these properties in ecosystem and Earth System models. Furthermore, the simple approach with emergent properties based on coupled C–N dynamics has potential for use in research that uses data-assimilation methods to integrate data on both the C and N cycles to improve C flux forecasts.