Max Planck Gesellschaft

--- Former member --- Now Director of the Biogeochemical Signals department

Sönke Zaehle

Director of the Biogeochemical Signals department
fomerly: Scientist, Leader of the Terrestrial Biosphere Modelling Research Group
room: C3.015
phone: +49 3641 576230
fax: +49 3641 577200
email: szaehle(at)

Professional background | My work at MPI-BGC | Research interests | Publications

Research Interests:

My main research interest lies in the quantification of the effects of nutrient limitation (nitrogen & phosphorus) on terrestrial biosphere dynamics (carbon cycling, water and energy balance, vegetation dynamics) and their interactions with the Earth system. My research focuses on the development and application of large-scale process-based terrestrial biosphere models to understand the interactions between land-surface and atmospheric processes. While such models are powerful tools to quantify biophysical and biogeochemical feedbacks mechanisms, they are subject to large uncertainties resulting from incomplete understanding of key processes. A significant proportion of my research is therefore dedicated to use new ecophysiological knowledge to improve key land surface processes in large-scale process-based modeling and to use observational data streams (including plant trait information, in situ measurements, atmospheric concentration measurements, and remote sensing data) to assess and improve these models.

My work at MPI Biogeochemistry

I was recently appointed Director of the newly formed Department of Biogeochemical Signals, succeeding the Department of Biogeochemical Systems led by Prof. Dr. Martin Heimann. Updates will follow in the near future.

My past research foci have been:


In the winter-term, I contribute to the lecture series climatology for physical geographers at the Friedrich-Schiller University, Jena.

I also contribute to PhD-level courses on terrestrial and Earth system modeling and global change.

Community service:

I act as associate editor for the journal Biogeosciences, and as advisor for the journal New Phytologist.

I am a member of the Michael Stifel Centre Jena for data-driven and simulation-based science at the Friedrich Schiller Universität, Jena, and a faculty member of the IMPRS for Global Biogeochemical Cycles.

I am a member of the scientific steering committee of the German Climate Computing Service DKRZ.

Selected peer-reviewed publications:

Meyerholt, J., Sickel, K., Zaehle, S. (2020). Ensemble projections elucidate effects of uncertainty in terrestrial nitrogen limitation on future carbon uptake. Global Change Biology, 00: 1– 19.
Thum, T., et al., Zaehle, S. (2019). A new terrestrial biosphere model with coupled carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles (QUINCY v1.0; revision 1772). Geoscientific Model Development, 12(11), 4781-4802. doi:10.5194/gmd-12-4781-2019.

Knauer, J., Zaehle, S., et al. (2017). The response of ecosystem water-use efficiency to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations: sensitivity and large-scale biogeochemical implications. New Phytologist, 213(4), 1654-1666. doi:10.1111/nph.14288.


Medlyn, B.E., Zaehle, S. et al. (2015) Using ecosystem experiments to improve vegetation models. Nature Climate Change, doi: doi:10.1038/nclimate2621


Zaehle, S. et al. (2014) Evaluation of 11 terrestrial carbon–nitrogen cycle models against observations from two temperate Free-Air CO2 Enrichment studies. New Phytologist, 202, 803-822. See also the related commentary by G. Bonan


Zaehle, S., Ciais P., Friend A.D., Prieur V. (2011) Carbon benefits of anthropogenic reactive nitrogen offset by nitrous oxide emissions. Nature Geoscience doi:0.1038/NGEO1207.


Zaehle, S., Dalmonech, D. (2011) Carbon-nitrogen interactions on land at global scales: Current understanding in modelling climate biosphere feedbacks. Current Opinions in Environmental Sustainability 3, 311-20; 10.1016/j.cosust.2011.08.008.


Zaehle, S., Friedlingstein, P., and Friend, A.D. (2010) Terrestrial nitrogen feedbacks may accelerate future climate change. Geophysical Research Letters, 37, L01401: doi:10.1029/2009GL041345.


Zaehle, S., et al. 2006) The importance of age-related decline in forest NPP for modeling regional carbon balances Ecological Applications 16(4) 1555-1574.


Zaehle, S., et al. (2005) Effects of parameter uncertainties on the modeling of terrestrial biosphere dynamics Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 19 GB3020, doi:10.1029/2004GB002395.


Follow link for a full list of publications.

Professional background

since 05/2020 Director of the Biogeochemical Signals Department at the Max-Planck-Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, DE
09/2009-04/2020 Leader of the Terrestrial Biosphere Modelling Research Group at the Max-Planck-Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, DE
08/2008-04/2020 Research Scientist at the Max-Planck-Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, DE
08/2005-07/2008 Experienced Researcher (PostDoc) at the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement in Gif sur Yvette, FR, within the GREENCYCLES MC-RTN
04/2005-07/2005 Researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam DE
09/2001-04/2005 PhD-student at the University of Potsdam / Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam DE
09/2000-08/2001 MSc-Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.
10/1997-09/2000 Study of Geoecology at the Institute of Geoecology, Technische Universität Braunschweig, Braunschweig, DE.
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