The stable carbon isotope composition of the terrestrial biosphere: Modeling at scales from the leaf to the globe

Jed O. Kaplan*, I. Colin Prentice, Nina Buchmann

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

70 Citations (Scopus)


Global data sets of the stable carbon isotope composition of plant leaves, of CO2 in canopy air, and of CO2 in the background atmosphere were compiled and compared to results of a global vegetation model (BIOME4) that simulated, at these three scales, the magnitude, direction, and timing of fluxes of CO2 and 13C between the biosphere and the atmosphere. Carbon isotope data on leaves were classified into 12 Plant Functional Types (PFTs), and measurements from canopy flasks were assigned to 16 biomes, for direct comparison to model results. BIOME4 simulated the observed leaf δ13C values to within 1 standard deviation of the measured mean for most PFTs. Modeled δ13C for C3 grasses, tundra shrubs, and herbaceous plants of cold climates deviated only slightly more from measurements, perhaps as a result of the wide geographic range and a limited set of measurements of these PFTs. Modeled ecosystem isotopic discrimination against 13C(Δe) averaged 18.6 globally when simulating potential natural vegetation and 18.1 when an agricultural crop mask was superimposed. The difference was mainly due to the influence of C4 agriculture in areas that are naturally dominated by C3 vegetation. Model results show a gradient in Δe among C3-dominated biomes as a result of stomatal responses to aridity; this model result is supported by canopy air measurements. At the troposphere scale, BIOME4 was coupled to a matrix representation of an atmospheric tracer transport model to simulate seasonally varying concentrations of CO2 and 13C at remote Northern Hemisphere measuring stations. Ocean CO2 and 13C flux fields were included, using the HAMOCC3 ocean biogeochemistry model [Six and Maier-Reimer, 1996]. Model results and observations show similar seasonal cycles, and the model reproduces the inferred latitudinal trend toward smaller isotopic discrimination by the biosphere at lower latitudes. These results indicate that biologically mediated variations in 13C discrimination by terrestrial ecosystems may be significant for atmospheric inverse modeling of carbon sources and sinks, and that such variations can be simulated using a process-based model.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8-1
Number of pages8
JournalGlobal Biogeochemical Cycles
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • C4
  • Carbon cycle
  • IRMS
  • Isotope ecology
  • Plant functional types
  • Vegetation modeling


Dive into the research topics of 'The stable carbon isotope composition of the terrestrial biosphere: Modeling at scales from the leaf to the globe'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this