From sink to source: changing climate and disturbance regimes could tip the 21st century carbon balance of an unmanaged mountain forest landscape

Katharina Albrich, Rupert Seidl, Werner Rammer, Dominik Thom

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Forests are one of the most important components of the global carbon cycle. Consequently, forest protection as a nature-based climate solution has garnered increasing interest. Protected areas instated to safeguard biodiversity provide an opportunity to maximize carbon storage in situ, with important co-benefits between conservation and climate change mitigation. However, changing climate and disturbance regimes put this carbon storage function at risk. Here we investigated carbon sequestration and storage in a protected landscape in the German Alps (Berchtesgaden National Park) throughout the 21st century. We simulated the impacts of climate change as well as increasing wind and bark beetle disturbances on cumulative Net Ecosystem Production using a process-based forest landscape model. Considering a wide range of potential changes in wind frequency and speed under a variety of climate change scenarios, we addressed the question under which future conditions the landscape will turn from a carbon sink to a carbon source. While the landscape was a net carbon sink at the end of the simulation in 76 per cent of the simulation runs, increasing disturbances and climate change greatly reduced its carbon sink capacity. Under RCP2.6, the landscape remained a robust carbon sink even under elevated disturbance (probability of turning from sink to source between 0 per cent and 25 per cent). In contrast, carbon release was likely under RCP8.5 even with little change in the disturbance regime (probability: 30 per cent to 95 per cent). Productive areas in lower elevations that currently have the highest carbon density on the landscape were contributing most strongly to a reduction of the carbon sink strength. Our study reveals that the effect of protected areas acting as nature-based climate solutions might be overestimated if the risks from changing climate and disturbance regimes are neglected. We therefore call for a more explicit consideration of future forest dynamics in the discussion of the potential role of forests in climate change mitigation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)399-409
Number of pages11
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2023


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