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

R. Q. Thomas*, M. Williams

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2015-2037
Number of pages23
JournalGeoscientific Model Development
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 12 Sep 2014


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