Most solar energy absorbed at the earth’s surface is radiated back into space. For every high energy solar photon absorbed, about 20 degraded thermal photons are eventually radiated back. Ecosystems hitch a ride on this process. The starting point is of course plant photosynthesis which converts sunlight into chemical energy: . The reverse process (respiration, burning of sugars and emission of CO2) converts the energy captured by photosynthesis into an almost unbelievable variety of alternative chemical forms, and also into mechanical energy and heat. Following carbon is a way to track energy flow through an ecosystem.
Respiration CO2 derives from maintainance and growth respiration by vascular plants (“autotrophic” respiration) and also by the decay of organic matter in soil and litter layers (“heterotrophic” respiration). At the ecosystem level, the net exchange of CO2 with the atmosphere is called Net Ecosystem Exchange (NEE). NEE is just the difference between total ecosystem respiration (RE) and photosynthesis (or Gross Ecosystem Production, GEP) :
At night, GEP and the flux of CO2 from the ecosystem to the atmosphere equals RE. During daylight hours, GEP switches on and NEE is normally negative during the growing season. Of course NEE depends on sunlight, air temperature, soil moisture etc. Fortunately this important property of ecosystems is directly measurable.
Under normal conditions, air motion above vegetation is turbulent. This fact is the basis of a statistical technique called eddy covariance which measures the flux of CO2 between ecosystem and atmosphere. A setup similar to the one shown on the left is mounted on a tower rising above the top of the vegetation canopy. The setup consists of a gas analyser (measuring instantaneous CO2 concentration), and an anemometer (capable of measuring the instantaneous vertical component of the wind velocity).
To a good approximation, the CO2 flux is just the covariance of the vertical wind speed with the CO2 concentration . For example, if and are uncorrelated, the flux is zero. The covariance can be obtained by recording data at high frequency over 30min intervals, say. This gives a time-series of CO2 fluxes at half-hour intervals. The eddy covariance technique gives information on NEE on a spatial scale which is typically . Of course, the technique also works for other trace gases or water vapour. There is a good wikipedia article on eddy covariance which provides additional details.
According to Fluxnet, there about 500 flux towers making continuous eddy covariance measurements of NEE worldwide. Given the diversity of Earth’s ecosystems, this is a small number. Flux tower data is rare and valuable.
With this technical explanation out of the way, we get to look at NEE for some real ecosystems. Access to (mainly North American) flux tower data was obtained through the ameriflux network. Two different forest ecosystems are compared. Harvard forest is a 1200Ha temperate broadleaf deciduous forest in Massachussetts. This secondary growth forest has been studied intensively since it was established in 1907. A 30m flux tower has measured NEE at Harvard Forest since 1993. km 67 Sanatarem flux tower on the other hand is located in primary tropical rainforest, Tapajos National Forest, Para State, Brazil. Three years of data are available 2000-2003 from this 64m tower.
Half-hourly time-series of CO2 fluxes were generated as shown below using the statistical programming language R.
The qualitative features of CO2 fluxes are as expected. Namely, both forests lose carbon at night while daytime fluxes tend to be negative, temperate forest shows a strong seasonal signal and there is a much weaker wet/dry seasonal signal in the tropical forest. There are some surprises, however. Peak summer carbon fluxes at Harvard Forest are as large as Santarem tropical forest fluxes . Another surprise is that there is stronger carbon absorbtion by the tropical forest during the dry season, which seems to contradict intuition about dry season water stress. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the relative performance of the two forests as net carbon sources or sinks.
Sources or Sinks?
Cumulative NEE shows whether these forests are sources or sinks of carbon. This is simply obtained by applying R‘s cumsum() function to the half-hourly time-series above. The graph (below) shows that Harvard forest has been a strong and even accelerating sink for CO2 (= 2tC/Ha/y) since 1992, even though it is 100 years old. By contrast, primary forest at the Santarem site was a source of CO2 between 2002 and 2005. Researcher suggest this may be due to the presence of excess dead wood in the area following earlier disturbances e.g. 1998 El Nino drought.
It is remarkable that Harvard Forest is still an agressive carbon sink (0.25KgC/m2/y) after 100 years of growth.
The above illustrates some of the surprises and complexity of real ecosystem data. When memory effects are large, intuition can be a very poor guide. Models, such as those used in long-term climate research, are necessarily simplifications of reality.
This is the R code used to download, process and plot the flux tower data. In a follow-on post an ecosystem model for Havard Forest NEE will be built in R.
 Forests in Time: The Enviromental Consequences of change in New England, by D. Foster and J. Aber, 2004
 Carbon in Amazon Forests: Unexpected Seasonal Fluxes and Disturbance-Induced Losses, Saleska et al, Science vol. 302 2003