The Three Major Axes of Terrestrial Ecosystem Function


The leaf economics spectrum and the global spectrum of plant forms and functions revealed fundamental axes of variation in~plant traits, which represent different ecological strategies that are shaped by the evolutionary development of plant species. Ecosystem functions depend on environmental conditions and the traits of species that comprise the ecological communities. However, the axes of variation of ecosystem functions are largely unknown, which limits our understanding of how ecosystems respond as a whole to anthropogenic drivers, climate and environmental variability. Here we derive a set of ecosystem functions from a dataset of surface gas exchange measurements across major terrestrial biomes. We find that most of the variability within ecosystem functions (71.8%) is captured by three key axes. The first axis reflects maximum ecosystem productivity and is mostly explained by vegetation structure. The second axis reflects ecosystem water-use strategies and is jointly explained by variation in vegetation height and climate. The third axis, which represents ecosystem carbon-use efficiency, features a gradient related to aridity, and is explained primarily by variation in vegetation structure. We show that two state-of-the-art land surface models reproduce the first and most important axis of ecosystem functions. However, the models tend to simulate more strongly correlated functions than those observed, which limits their ability to accurately predict the full range of responses~to environmental changes in carbon, water and energy cycling in terrestrial ecosystems.