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Ecosystem carbon balance in the Hawaiian Islands under different scenarios of future climate and land use change

September 29, 2021

The State of Hawai'i passed legislation to be carbon neutral by 2045, a goal that will partly depend on carbon sequestration by terrestrial ecosystems. However, there is considerable uncertainty surrounding the future direction and magnitude of the land carbon sink in the Hawaiian Islands. We used the Land Use and Carbon Scenario Simulator (LUCAS), a spatially explicit stochastic simulation model that integrates landscape change and carbon gain-loss, to assess how projected future changes in climate and land use will influence ecosystem carbon balance in the Hawaiian Islands under all combinations of two radiative forcing scenarios (RCPs 4.5 and 8.5) and two land use scenarios (low and high) over a 90 year timespan from 2010 to 2100. Collectively, terrestrial ecosystems of the Hawaiian Islands acted as a net carbon sink under low radiative forcing (RCP 4.5) for the entire 90 year simulation period, with low land use change further enhancing carbon sink strength. In contrast, Hawaiian terrestrial ecosystems transitioned from a net sink to a net source of CO2 to the atmosphere under high radiative forcing (RCP 8.5), with high land use accelerating this transition and exacerbating net carbon loss. A sensitivity test of the CO2 fertilization effect on plant productivity revealed it to be a major source of uncertainty in projections of ecosystem carbon balance, highlighting the need for greater mechanistic understanding of plant productivity responses to rising atmospheric CO2. Long-term model projections such as ours that incorporate the interactive effects of land use and climate change on regional ecosystem carbon balance will be critical to evaluating the potential of ecosystem-based climate mitigation strategies.