DOI: 10.1029/2023gl104962 ISSN: 0094-8276

Are Plant Functional Types Fit for Purpose?

Jon Cranko Page, Gab Abramowitz, Martin. G. De Kauwe, Andy J. Pitman
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences
  • Geophysics


For over 40 years, Plant Functional Types (PFTs) have been used to discretize the ∼400,000 species of terrestrial plants into “similar” classes. Within Earth System Models (ESMs), PFTs simplify terrestrial biosphere modeling in combination with soil information and other site characteristics. However, in flux analysis studies, PFT schemes are often implemented as the sole analytical lens to clarify complex behavior. This usage assumes that PFTs adequately enable a mapping between climate inputs and flux outputs. Here, we show that random forest models, trained using aggregated climate and flux measurements from 245 eddy‐covariance sites, cannot accurately predict PFT groupings, regardless of the nature of the PFT scheme. Similarly, PFTs provide negligible benefit when using site climate to predict site flux regimes and vice versa. While use of PFT classifications is convenient, our results suggest they do not aid analytical skill, which has important implications for future terrestrial flux studies.

More from our Archive