Functional Plant Biology Functional Plant Biology Society
Plant function and evolutionary biology

A critical overview of model estimates of net primary productivity for the Australian continent

Stephen H. Roxburgh A B H , Damian J. Barrett A F , Sandra L. Berry A B , John O. Carter A D , Ian D. Davies A B , Roger M. Gifford A C , Miko U. F. Kirschbaum A E , Bevan P. McBeth A B , Ian R. Noble A B , William G. Parton G , Michael R. Raupach A F and Micahel L. Roderick A B

A Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Accounting, GPO Box 1600, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia.

B Ecosystem Dynamics Group, Research School of Biological Sciences, Institute of Advanced Studies, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia.

C CSIRO Plant Industry, GPO Box 1600, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia.

D Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines, GPO Box 2545, Brisbane, Qld 4001, Australia.

E CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products, PO Box E4008, Kingston, ACT 2604, Australia.

F CSIRO Land and Water, GPO Box 1666, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia.

G Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA.

H Corresponding author. Email:

Functional Plant Biology 31(11) 1043-1059
Submitted: 3 June 2004  Accepted: 17 September 2004   Published: 18 November 2004


Net primary production links the biosphere and the climate system through the global cycling of carbon, water and nutrients. Accurate quantification of net primary productivity (NPP) is therefore critical in understanding the response of the world’s ecosystems to global climate change, and how changes in ecosystems might themselves feed back to the climate system.

Twelve model estimates of long-term annual NPP for the Australian continent were reviewed. These models varied considerably in the approaches adopted and the inputs required. The model estimates ranged 5-fold, from 0.67 to 3.31 Gt C y–1. Within-continent variation was similarly large, with most of the discrepancies occurring in the arid zone of Australia, which comprises most of the continent. It is also within this zone that empirical NPP data are most lacking. Comparison with a recent global-scale analysis of six dynamic global vegetation models showed a similar level of variability in continental total NPP, 0.38 to 2.85 Gt C y–1, and similar within-continent spatial variability. As a first tentative step towards model validation the twelve NPP estimates were compared with existing field measurements, although the ability to reach definitive conclusions was limited by insufficient data, and incompatibilities between the field-based observations and the model predictions. It was concluded that the current NPP-modelling capability falls short of the accuracy required for effective application in understanding the terrestrial biospheric implications of global atmospheric / climatic change.

Potential methods that could be used in future work for improving modelled estimates of Australian continental NPP and their validation are discussed. These include increasing the spatial coverage of empirical NPP estimates within arid ecosystems, the use of existing high quality site data for more detailed model exploration, and a formal model inter-comparison using uniform driver datasets to investigate more intensively differences in model behaviour and assumptions.

Keywords: continental, model, model comparison, NPP, rainfall-use efficiency.


We thank Greg McKeon and two referees for their many insightful comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript. Thanks also to Joe Landsberg for making available the 3PG estimate of Australian NPP for inclusion in this review.


AUSLIG (1990). ‘Atlas of Australian resources. Vol. 6. Vegetation.’ (Commonwealth Government printer: Canberra)

Australian Greenhouse Office (2002). ‘Greenhouse gas emissions from land use change in Australia: an integrated application of the national carbon accounting system.’ (Australian Greenhouse Office: Canberra)

Baldocchi, D ,  and  Amthor, JS (2001). Canopy photosynthesis: history, measurements, and models. In ‘Terrestrial global productivity’. pp. 9–26. (Academic Press: San Diego)

Baldocchi D, Falge E, Gu L, Olson R, Hollinger D , et al. (2001) FLUXNET: a new tool to study the temporal and spatial variability of ecosystem-scale carbon dioxide, water vapor, and energy flux densities. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 82, 2415–2434.
CrossRef | open url image1

Barrett DJ (2001) validated 5 October 2004

Barrett DJ (2002) Steady state turnover time of carbon in the Australian terrestrial biosphere. Global Biogeochemical Cycles 16, 1108– .
CrossRef | open url image1

Barrett DJ, Galbally IE, Graetz RD (2001) Quantifying uncertainty in estimates of C emissions from above-ground biomass due to historic land-use change to cropping in Australia. Global Change Biology 7, 883–902.
CrossRef | open url image1

Carter, JO , Hall, WB , Brook, KD , McKeon, GM , Day, KA ,  and  Paull, CJ (2000). AussieGRASS: Australian grassland and rangeland assessment by spatial simulation. In ‘Applications of seasonal climate forecasting in agricultural and natural ecosystems — the Australian experience’. pp. 329–250. (Kluwer Academic Press: Dordrecht)

Chen XY, Hutley LB, Eamus D (2003) Carbon balance of a tropical savanna of northern Australia. Oecologia 137, 405–416.
CrossRef | PubMed | open url image1

Clark DA, Brown S, Kicklighter DW, Chambers JQ, Thomlinson JR, Ni J (2001) Measuring net primary production in forests: concepts and field methods. Ecological Applications 11, 356–370. open url image1

Cramer W, Field CB (1999) Comparing global models of terrestrial net primary productivity (NPP): introduction. Global Change Biology 5, 3–4. open url image1

Cramer W, Kicklighter DW, Bondeau A, Moore B, Churkina C, Nemry B, Ruimy A, Schloss AL (1999) Comparing global models of terrestrial net primary productivity (NPP): overview and key results. Global Change Biology 5, 1–15.
CrossRef | open url image1

Cramer W, Bondeau A, Woodward FI, Prentice IC, Betts RA (2001) Global response of terrestrial ecosystem structure and function to CO2 and climate change: results from six dynamic global vegetation models. Global Change Biology 7, 357–373.
CrossRef |
open url image1

Day KA, McKeon GM, Carter JO (1997) ‘Evaluating the risks of pasture and land degradation in native pastures in Queensland.’ Final report for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. DAQ-124A. Queensland Department of Primary Industries, Brisbane.

Eamus D (2003) How does ecosystem water balance affect net primary productivity of woody ecosystems? Functional Plant Biology 30, 187–205.
CrossRef | open url image1

Eamus D, Hutley LB, O'Grady AP (2001) Daily and seasonal patterns of carbon and water fluxes above a north Australian savanna. Tree Physiology 21, 977–988.
PubMed |
open url image1

Field CB, Randerson JT, Malmstrom CM (1995) Global net primary production — combining ecology and remote sensing. Remote Sensing of Environment 51, 74–88.
CrossRef | open url image1

Foran BD, Bastin G, Remenga E, Hyde KW (1982) The response to season, exclosure, and distance from water of three central Australian pasture types grazed by cattle. Australian Rangelands Journal 4, 5–15. open url image1

Forrest WG, Ovington JD (1970) Organic matter changes in an age series of Pinus radiata plantations. Journal of Applied Ecology 7, 177–186. open url image1

Frank DA, Kuns MM, Guido DR (2002) Consumer control of grassland plant production. Ecology 83, 602–606. open url image1

Gifford, RM , Cheney, NP , Noble, JC , Russell, JS , Wellington, AB ,  and  Zammit, C (1992). Australian land use, primary production of vegetation and carbon pools in relation to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. In ‘Australia’s renewable resources sustainability and global change’. pp. 151–187. (CSIRO Division of Plant Industry: Canberra)

Gill RA, Kelly RH, Parton WJ, Day KA, Jackson RB , et al. (2002) Using simple environmental variables to estimate below-ground productivity in grasslands. Global Ecology and Biogeography Letters 11, 79–86.
CrossRef | open url image1

Graetz D (1998) ‘The terrestrial carbon pools of the Australian continent: an assessment of their size, dynamics and tractability.’ Reporting a project undertaken for the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory. Environment Australia, Canberra.

Hacker R (1991) IMAGES: an integrated model of an arid grazing ecological system. Agricultural Systems 37, 119–163.
CrossRef | open url image1

Hill MJ, Braaten R, McKeon GM (2003) A scenario calculator for effects of grazing land management on carbon stocks in Australian rangelands. Environmental Modelling and Software 18, 627–644.
CrossRef | open url image1

Hobbs TJ, Sparrow AD, Landsberg JJ (1994) A model of soil moisture balance and herbage growth in the arid rangelands of central Australia. Journal of Arid Environments 28, 281–298. open url image1

House, JI ,  and  Hall, DO (2001). Productivity of tropical savannas and grasslands. In ‘Terrestrial global productivity’. pp. 363–393. (Academic Press: San Diego)

Huxman TE, Smith MD, Fay PA, Knapp AK, Shaw MR , et al. (2004) Convergence across biomes to a common rain-use efficiency. Nature 429, 651–654.
CrossRef | PubMed | open url image1

Jeffrey S, Carter J, Moodie K, Beswick A (2001) Using spatial interpolation to construct a comprehensive archive of Australian climate data. Environmental Modelling and Software 16, 309–330.
CrossRef | open url image1

Johnson LC, Matchett JR (2001) Fire and grazing regulate belowground processes in tallgrass prairie. Ecology 82, 3377–3389. open url image1

Keith H, Raison RJ, Jacobsen KL (1997) Allocation of carbon in a mature eucalypt forest and some effects of soil phosphorus availability. Plant and Soil 196, 81–99.
CrossRef | open url image1

Kirschbaum MUF (1999a) CenW, a forest growth model with linked carbon, energy, nutrient and water cycles. Ecological Modelling 118, 17–59.
CrossRef | open url image1

Kirschbaum, MUF (1999b). The effect of climate change on forest growth in Australia. In ‘Impacts of global change on Australian temperate forests. BRS working paper series No. 99 / 08’. b. pp. 62–68. (Bureau of Rural Sciences: Canberra)

Kirschbaum, M , Eamus, D , Gifford, R , Roxburgh, S ,  and  Sands, P (2001). Definitions of some ecological terms used in carbon accounting. In ‘Proceedings of the net ecosystem exchange CRC workshop’. pp. 2–5. (CRC for Greenhouse Accounting: Canberra)

Kirschbaum MUF, Simioni G, Medlyn BE, McMurtrie RE (2003) On the importance of including soil nutrient feed-back effects for predicting ecosystem carbon exchange. Functional Plant Biology 30, 223–237. open url image1

Landsberg, JJ ,  and  Kesteven, J (2002). Spatial estimation of plant productivity. In ‘Biomass estimation: approaches for assessment of stocks and stock change. National carbon accounting system technical report no. 27’. pp. 33–50. (Australian Greenhouse Office: Canberra)

Landsberg JJ, Waring RH (1997) A generalised model of forest productivity using simplified concepts of radiation-use efficiency, carbon balance and partitioning. Forest Ecology and Management 95, 209–228.
CrossRef | open url image1

Le Houerou (1984) Rain use efficiency: a unifying concept in arid-land ecology. Journal of Arid Environments 7, 213–247. open url image1

Lieth, H (1975). Modeling the primary productivity of the world. In ‘Primary productivity of the biosphere’. pp. 237–263. (Springer-Verlag: New York)

McMahon, TA , Gan, KC ,  and  Finlayson, BL (1992). Anthropogenic changes to the hydrologic cycle in Australia. In ‘Australia’s renewable resources sustainability and global change’. pp. 35–66. (CSIRO Division of Plant Indistry: Canberra)

McMahon, JP , Hutchinson, MF , Nix, HA ,  and  Ord, KD (1995). ‘ANUCLIM user’s guide.’ (Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National University: Canberra)

Medlyn B, Barrett D, Landsberg J, Sands P, Clement R (2003) Conversion of canopy intercepted radiation to photosynthate: review of modelling approaches for regional scales. Functional Plant Biology 30, 153–169. open url image1

New M, Hulme M, Jones P (2000) Representing twentieth-century space-time climate variability. Part II: Development of 1901–96 monthly grids of terrestrial surface climate. Journal of Climate 13, 2217–2238.
CrossRef | open url image1

Olson, JS , Watts, JA ,  and  Allison, LJ (1983). ‘Carbon in live vegetation of major world ecosystems’. Report ORNL-5862. (Oak Ridge National Laboratory: Oak Ridge)

Olson, RJ , Scurlock, JMO , Prince, SD , Zheng, DL ,  and  Johnson, KR (2001). ‘NPP multi-biome: NPP and driver data for ecosystem model-data intercomparison.’ (Oak Ridge National Laboratory Distributed Active Archive Center: Oak Ridge, TE)

Parton, WJ , McKeown, B , Kirchner, V ,  and  Ojima, DS (1992). ‘Century user’s manual.’ (Colorado State University, NREL Publication: Fort Collins, CO)

Pittock AB, Nix HA (1986) The effect of changing climate on Australian biomass production — a preliminary study. Climatic Change 8, 243–255.
CrossRef |
open url image1

Raupach MR, Kirby JM, Barrett DJ, Briggs PR (2001) Balances of water, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in Australian landscapes: (1) project description and results. Technical report 40 / 01. CSIRO Land and Water, Canberra, ACT.

Raupach MR, Kirby JM, Barrett DJ, Briggs PR, Lu H, Zhang L (2001) Balances of water, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in Australian landscapes: (1) model formulation and testing. Technical report 40 / 01. CSIRO Land and Water, Canberra, ACT.

Rickert, KG , Stuth, JW ,  and  McKeon, GM (2000). Modelling pasture and animal production. In ‘Field and laboratory methods for grassland and animal production research’. pp. 29–66. (CABI publishing: New York)

Robertson, G (1987). Plant dynamics. In ‘Kangaroos: their ecology and management in sheep rangelands’. pp. 50–69. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge)

Roderick ML, Farquhar GD, Berry SL, Noble IR (2001) On the direct effect of clouds and atmospheric particles on the productivity and structure of vegetation. Oecologia 129, 21–30.
CrossRef | open url image1

Roxburgh SH, Davies ID (In press) COINS, an integrative modeling shell for carbon accounting and general ecological analysis. Environmental Modelling and Software , open url image1

Roy, J , Saugier, B ,  and  Mooney, HA (2001). ‘Terrestrial global productivity’. (Academic Press: San Diego)

Saugier, B , Roy, J ,  and  Mooney, HA (2001). Estimations of global terrestrial productivity: converging toward as single number? In ‘Terrestrial global productivity’. pp. 543–557. (Academic Press: San Diego)

Schläpfer F, Schmid B (1999) Ecosystem effects of biodiversity: a classification of hypotheses and exploration of empirical results. Ecological Applications 9, 893–912. open url image1

Schroeder P, Brown S, Mo JM, Birdsey R, Cieszewski C (1997) Biomass estimation for temperate broadleaf forests of the United States using inventory data. Forest Science 42, 424–434. open url image1

Schulze E-D, Lloyd J, Kelliher FM, Wirth C, Rebmann , et al. (1999) Productivity of forests in the Eurosiberian boreal region and their potential to act as a carbon sink — a synthesis. Global Change Biology 5, 703–722.
CrossRef | open url image1

Scurlock JMO, Cramer W, Olson RJ, Parton WJ, Prince SD (1999) Terrestrial NPP: toward a consistent data set for global model evaluation. Ecological Applications 9, 913–919. open url image1

Scurlock JMO, Johnson K, Olson RJ (2002) Estimating net primary productivity from grassland biomass dynamics measurements. Global Change Biology 8, 736–753.
CrossRef | open url image1

Snowdon S, Eamus D, Gibbons P, Khanna P, Keith H, Raison J, Kirschbaum M (2000) ‘Synthesis of allometrics, review of root biomass and design of future wood biomass sampling strategy’. NCAS technical report no. 17. The Australian Greenhouse Office, Canberra.

Wang YP (2003) A comparison of three different canopy radiation models commonly used in plant modelling. Functional Plant Biology 30, 143–152.
CrossRef | open url image1

Williams RJ, Hutley LB, Cook GD, Russell-Smith J, Edwards A, Chen XY (2004) Assessing the carbon sequestration potential of mesic savannas in the Northern Territory, Australia: approaches, uncertainties and potential impacts of fire. Functional Plant Biology 31, 415–422.
CrossRef | open url image1

Zheng DL, Prince S, Wright R (2003) Terrestrial net primary production estimates for 0.5 degrees grid cells from field observations — a contribution to global biogeochemical modeling. Global Change Biology 9, 46–64.
CrossRef | open url image1

Rent Article (via Deepdyve) Export Citation Cited By (32)