Representing agriculture in Earth System Models: Approaches and priorities for development

S. S. McDermid, L. O. Mearns, A. C. Ruane

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


    Earth System Model (ESM) advances now enable improved representations of spatially and temporally varying anthropogenic climate forcings. One critical forcing is global agriculture, which is now extensive in land-use and intensive in management, owing to 20th century development trends. Agriculture and food systems now contribute nearly 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions and require copious inputs and resources, such as fertilizer, water, and land. Much uncertainty remains in quantifying important agriculture-climate interactions, including surface moisture and energy balances and biogeochemical cycling. Despite these externalities and uncertainties, agriculture is increasingly being leveraged to function as a net sink of anthropogenic carbon, and there is much emphasis on future sustainable intensification. Given its significance as a major environmental and climate forcing, there now exist a variety of approaches to represent agriculture in ESMs. These approaches are reviewed herein, and range from idealized representations of agricultural extent to the development of coupled climate-crop models that capture dynamic feedbacks. We highlight the robust agriculture-climate interactions and responses identified by these modeling efforts, as well as existing uncertainties and model limitations. To this end, coordinated and benchmarking assessments of land-use-climate feedbacks can be leveraged for further improvements in ESM's agricultural representations. We suggest key areas for continued model development, including incorporating irrigation and biogeochemical cycling in particular. Last, we pose several critical research questions to guide future work. Our review focuses on ESM representations of climate-surface interactions over managed agricultural lands, rather than on ESMs as an estimation tool for crop yields and productivity.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)2230-2265
    Number of pages36
    JournalJournal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems
    Issue number5
    StatePublished - Sep 2017


    • Earth System Models
    • agriculture
    • dynamic vegetation
    • land surface

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Global and Planetary Change
    • Environmental Chemistry
    • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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