Uncertainty in Calculations of Net Primary Production for Grasslands

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Abstract

Net primary production (NPP) is a fundamental characteristic of all ecosystems and foundational to understanding the fluxes of energy and nutrients. Because NPP cannot be measured directly, researchers use field-measured surrogates as input variables in various equations designed to estimate ‘true NPP’. This has led to considerable debate concerning which equations most accurately estimate ‘true NPP’. This debate has influenced efforts to assess NPP in grasslands, with researchers often advocating more complex equations to avoid underestimation. However, this approach ignores the increase in statistical error associated with NPP estimates as a greater number of parameters and more complex mathematical functions are introduced into the equation. Using published grassland data and Monte Carlo simulation techniques, we assessed the relative variability in NPP estimates obtained using six different NPP estimation equations that varied in both the number of parameters and intricacy of mathematical operations. Our results indicated that more complex equations may result in greater uncertainty without reducing the probability of underestimation. The amount of uncertainty associated with estimates of NPP was influenced by the number of parameters as well as the variability in the data and the nature of the mathematical operations. For example, due to greater variability in the field-measured belowground data than aboveground data, estimates of belowground NPP tended to have more uncertainty than estimates of aboveground NPP. An analysis in which the input data were standardized allowed us to isolate the details of the calculations from the variability in the data in assessing the propagation of uncertainty. This analysis made clear that equations with product terms have the potential to magnify the uncertainty of the inputs in the estimates of NPP although this relationship was complicated by interactions with data variability and number of parameters. Our results suggest that more complex NPP estimation equations can increase uncertainty without necessarily reducing risk of underestimation. Because estimates can never be tested by comparison to “true NPP”, we recommend that researchers include an assessment of propagation of statistical error when evaluating the ‘best’ estimation method.

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