Max Planck Gesellschaft

Sönke Zaehle

Director of the Biogeochemical Signals department
room: A3.003
phone: +49 3641 576300
fax: +49 3641 577300
email: szaehle(at)
email: office.bgc-signals(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 teach 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:

Selected peer-reviewed publications:

Knauer, J., Zaehle, S., Reichstein, M., Medlyn, B. E., Forkel, M., Hagemann, S., Werner, C. (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., Kauwe, M. G. D., Walker, A. P., Dietze, M. C., Hanson, P. J., Hickler, T., Jain, A. K., Luo, Y., Parton, W., Prentice, I. C., Thornton, P. E., Wang, S., Wang, Y.-P., Weng, E., Iversen, C. M., McCarthy, H. R., Warren, J. M., Oren, R., Norby, R. J. (2015). Using ecosystem experiments to improve vegetation models. Nature Climate Change, 5(6), 528-534. doi:10.1038/nclimate2621.
Meyerholt, J., Sickel, K., Zaehle, S. (2020). Ensemble projections elucidate effects of uncertainty in terrestrial nitrogen limitation on future carbon uptake. Global Change Biology, 26(7), 3978-3996. doi:10.1111/gcb.15114.
Thum, T., Caldararu, S., Engel, J., Kern, M., Pallandt, M., Schnur, R., Yu, L., Zaehle, S. (2019). A new model of the coupled carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles in the terrestrial biosphere (QUINCY v1.0; revision 1996). Geoscientific Model Development, 12(11), 4781-4802. doi:10.5194/gmd-12-4781-2019.
Zaehle, S., Ciais, P., Friend, A. D., Prieur, V. (2011). Carbon benefits of anthropogenic reactive nitrogen offset by nitrous oxide emissions. Nature Geoscience, 4(9), 601-605. doi:10.1038/ngeo1207.
Zaehle, S., Dalmonech, D. (2011). Carbon-nitrogen interactions on land at global scales: current understanding in modelling climate biosphere feedbacks. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 3(5), 311-320. doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2011.08.008.
Zaehle, S., Friedlingstein, P., Friend, A. D. (2010). Terrestrial nitrogen feedbacks may accelerate future climate change. Geophysical Research Letters, 37, L01401. doi:10.1029/2009gl041345.
Zaehle, S., Medlyn, B. E., De Kauwe, M. G., Walker, A. P., Dietze, M. C., Hickler, T., Luo, Y., Wang, Y.-P., El-Masri, B., Thornton, P., Jain, A., Wang, S., Warlind, D., Weng, E., Parton, W., Iversen, C. M., Gallet-Budynek, A., McCarthy, H., Finzi, A., Hanson, P. J., Prentice, I. C., Oren, R., Norby, R. J. (2014). Evaluation of 11 terrestrial carbon-nitrogen cycle models? against observations from two temperate free-air CO2 enrichment studies. New Phytologist, 202(3), 803-822. doi:10.1111/nph.12697.

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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