The response of ecosystem water-use efficiency to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations: sensitivity and large-scale biogeochemical implications

Jürgen Knauer*, Sönke Zaehle, Markus Reichstein, Belinda E. Medlyn, Matthias Forkel, Stefan Hagemann, Christiane Werner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Citations (Scopus)


Ecosystem water-use efficiency (WUE) is an important metric linking the global land carbon and water cycles. Eddy covariance-based estimates of WUE in temperate/boreal forests have recently been found to show a strong and unexpected increase over the 1992–2010 period, which has been attributed to the effects of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations on plant physiology. To test this hypothesis, we forced the observed trend in the process-based land surface model JSBACH by increasing the sensitivity of stomatal conductance (gs) to atmospheric CO2 concentration. We compared the simulated continental discharge, evapotranspiration (ET), and the seasonal CO2 exchange with observations across the extratropical northern hemisphere. The increased simulated WUE led to substantial changes in surface hydrology at the continental scale, including a significant decrease in ET and a significant increase in continental runoff, both of which are inconsistent with large-scale observations. The simulated seasonal amplitude of atmospheric CO2 decreased over time, in contrast to the observed upward trend across ground-based measurement sites. Our results provide strong indications that the recent, large-scale WUE trend is considerably smaller than that estimated for these forest ecosystems. They emphasize the decreasing CO2 sensitivity of WUE with increasing scale, which affects the physiological interpretation of changes in ecosystem WUE.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1654-1666
Number of pages13
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • continental discharge
  • evapotranspiration
  • leaf to ecosystem scaling
  • rising atmospheric CO2 concentration
  • seasonal CO2 exchange
  • water-use efficiency (WUE)


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