On the potential vegetation feedbacks that enhance phosphorus availability – insights from a process-based model linking geological and ecological timescales
In old and heavily weathered soils, the availability of P might be so small that the primary production of plants is limited. However, plants have evolved several mechanisms to actively take up P from the soil or mine it to overcome this limitation. These mechanisms involve the active uptake of P mediated by mycorrhiza, biotic de-occlusion through root clusters, and the biotic enhancement of weathering through root exudation. The objective of this paper is to investigate how and where these processes contribute to alleviate P limitation on primary productivity. To do so, we propose a process-based model accounting for the major processes of the carbon, water, and P cycles including chemical weathering at the global scale. Implementing P limitation on biomass synthesis allows the assessment of the efficiencies of biomass production across different ecosystems. We use simulation experiments to assess the relative importance of the different uptake mechanisms to alleviate P limitation on biomass production. We find that active P uptake is an essential mechanism for sustaining P availability on long timescales, whereas biotic de-occlusion might serve as a buffer on timescales shorter than 10 000 yr. Although active P uptake is essential for reducing P losses by leaching, humid lowland soils reach P limitation after around 100 000 yr of soil evolution. Given the generalized modelling framework, our model results compare reasonably with observed or independently estimated patterns and ranges of P concentrations in soils and vegetation. Furthermore, our simulations suggest that P limitation might be an important driver of biomass production efficiency (the fraction of the gross primary productivity used for biomass growth), and that vegetation on old soils has a smaller biomass production rate when P becomes limiting. With this study, we provide a theoretical basis for investigating the responses of terrestrial ecosystems to P availability linking geological and ecological timescales under different environmental settings.