Toward a better integration of biological data from precipitation manipulation experiments into Earth system models

Nicholas G. Smith, Vikki L. Rodgers, Edward R. Brzostek, Andrew Kulmatiski, Meghan L. Avolio, David L. Hoover, Sally E. Koerner, Kerstin Grant, Anke Jentsch, Simone Fatichi, Dev Niyogi

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


The biological responses to precipitation within the terrestrial components of Earth system models, or land surface models (LSMs), are mechanistically simple and poorly constrained, leaving projections of terrestrial ecosystem functioning and feedbacks to climate change uncertain. A number of field experiments have been conducted or are underway to test how changing precipitation will affect terrestrial ecosystems. Results from these experiments have the potential to vastly improve modeled processes. However, the transformation of experimental results into model improvements still represents a grand challenge. Here we review the current state of precipitation manipulation experiments and the precipitation responses of biological processes in LSMs to explore how these experiments can help improve model realism. First, we discuss contemporary precipitation projections and then review the structure and function of current-generation LSMs. We then examine different experimental designs and discuss basic variables that, if measured, would increase a field experiment's usefulness in a modeling context. Next, we compare biological processes commonly measured in the field with their model analogs and find that, in many cases, the way these processes are measured in the field is not compatible with the way they are represented in LSMs, an effect that hinders model development. We then discuss the challenge of scaling from the plot to the globe. Finally, we provide a series of recommendations aimed to improve the connectivity between experiments and LSMs and conclude that studies designed from the perspective of researchers in both communities will provide the greatest benefit to the broader global change community.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)412-434
Number of pages23
JournalReviews of Geophysics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2014


  • Earth system models
  • climate change
  • climate variability
  • modeling
  • precipitation
  • terrestrial ecosystems


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