The changing carbon cycle at Mauna Loa Observatory

Wolfgang Buermann*, Benjamin R. Lintner, Charles D. Koven, Alon Angert, Jorge E. Pinzon, Compton J. Tucker, Inez Y. Fung

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

89 Scopus citations


The amplitude of the CO2 seasonal cycle at the Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO) increased from the early 1970s to the early 1990s but decreased thereafter despite continued warming over northern continents. Because of its location relative to the large-scale atmospheric circulation, the MLO receives mainly Eurasian air masses in the northern hemisphere (NH) winter but relatively more North American air masses in NH summer. Consistent with this seasonal footprint, our findings indicate that the MLO amplitude registers North American net carbon uptake during the warm season and Eurasian net carbon release as well as anomalies in atmospheric circulation during the cold season. From the early 1970s to the early 1990s, our analysis was consistent with that of Keeling et al. [Keeling CD, Chin JFS, Whorf TP (1996) Nature 382:146-149], suggesting that the increase in the MLO CO2 amplitude is dominated by enhanced photosynthetic drawdown in North America and enhanced respiration in Eurasia. In contrast, the recent decline in the CO2 amplitude is attributed to reductions in carbon sequestration over North America associated with severe droughts from 1998 to 2003 and changes in atmospheric circulation leading to decreased influence of Eurasian air masses. With the return of rains to the U.S. in 2004, both the normalized difference vegetation index and the MLO amplitude sharply increased, suggesting a return of the North American carbon sink to more normal levels. These findings indicate that atmospheric CO 2 measurements at remote sites can continue to play an important role in documenting changes in land carbon flux, including those related to widespread drought, which may continue to worsen as a result of global warming.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)4249-4254
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number11
StatePublished - 13 Mar 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Atmospheric CO seasonal cycle
  • Atmospheric circulation
  • Continental droughts
  • Terrestrial carbon sinks


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