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PI-Submitted Research Highlights for
Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program

Assessing a New Clue to How Much Carbon Plants Take Up

J. Elliott Campbell
UC Santa Cruz



Tracking the carbonyl sulfide signal could open a new window into the carbon cycle.

The Science 
Current climate models disagree on how much carbon dioxide land ecosystems take up for photosynthesis.  In response, atmospheric scientists, biogeochemists, and oceanographers have proposed measuring a gas called carbonyl sulfide (COS) to help quantify the contribution that photosynthesis makes to carbon uptake.

The Impact
Photosynthesis is a key climate forcing process in the terrestrial biosphere. It removes CO2 from the atmosphere and stores carbon in plants, slowing the rate of climate change. Measurements of atmospheric COS provide the first global scale estimates of this carbon-climate feedback.

Ten years ago, scientists discovered a massive and persistent biosphere signal in atmospheric COS measurements. In these data, COS and CO2 levels follow a similar seasonal pattern, but the COS signal is much stronger over continental regions, suggesting that the terrestrial biosphere is a sink for COS. The remarkable discovery led scientists to wonder: Could COS be used as a tracer for carbon uptake?  An explosive growth in COS studies followed as scientists attempted to answer this question, including a COS record from the present to the Last Glacial Maximum, satellite-based maps of the dynamics of COS in the global atmosphere, and measurements of ecosystem fluxes of COS.

Contacts (BER PM)
J. Elliott Campbell
UC Santa Cruz

(PI Contact)
Daniel Stover
Daniel.Stover@science.doe.gov (301-903-0289)


Campbell, J. Elliott, et al. "Assessing a New Clue to How Much Carbon Plants Take Up." Eos 98 (2017).

Related Links

U.S. DOE Terrestrial Ecosystem Science program (DE-SC0011999).

Measuring carbonyl sulfide in the atmosphere may be a way to track terrestrial photosynthesis, potentially filling in a critical gap in current climate models. This alpine study area near Boulder, Colo., where the carbonyl sulfide signal was first detected 10 years ago, is part of the NOAA air-monitoring network. Credit: B. Bowman

midsized version

An intriguing feature of global COS budgets is the spatial separation of the dominant source in the ocean and sink in terrestrial plants. The marine source for COS is quantified using global measurement including the atmospheric observatory at Tudor Hill, Bermuda. Photo: M. Berkelhammer 

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