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Soil fertility limits carbon sequestration by forest ecosystems in a CO2-enriched atmosphere


Northern mid-latitude forests are a large terrestrial carbon sink1,2,3,4. Ignoring nutrient limitations, large increases in carbon sequestration from carbon dioxide (CO2) fertilization are expected in these forests5. Yet, forests are usually relegated to sites of moderate to poor fertility, where tree growth is often limited by nutrient supply, in particular nitrogen6,7. Here we present evidence that estimates of increases in carbon sequestration of forests, which is expected to partially compensate for increasing CO2 in the atmosphere, are unduly optimistic8. In two forest experiments on maturing pines exposed to elevated atmospheric CO2, the CO2-induced biomass carbon increment without added nutrients was undetectable at a nutritionally poor site, and the stimulation at a nutritionally moderate site was transient, stabilizing at a marginal gain after three years. However, a large synergistic gain from higher CO2 and nutrients was detected with nutrients added. This gain was even larger at the poor site (threefold higher than the expected additive effect) than at the moderate site (twofold higher). Thus, fertility can restrain the response of wood carbon sequestration to increased atmospheric CO2. Assessment of future carbon sequestration should consider the limitations imposed by soil fertility, as well as interactions with nitrogen deposition.

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Figure 1: A comparison of annual carbon increment under elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration (initiated in 1994) and ambient concentration without nutrient addition.
Figure 2: Effect of atmospheric CO2 concentration and nutrient supply on annual carbon increment in woody tissue of genotypically similar loblolly pine.
Figure 3: Cumulative carbon increment in woody tissue under ambient and elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration with and without the addition of nutrients.

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This study was supported by the Department of Energy through both the Office of Biological and Environmental Research and the National Institute for Global Environmental Change, Southeast Regional Center at the University of Alabama, and by the US Forest Service through both the Southern Global Climate Change Program and the Southern Research Station. This work contributes to the Global Change and Terrestrial Ecosystems (GCTE) core project of the International Geosphere–Biosphere Programme (IGBP). We thank D. E. Pataki for helping with data acquisition; T. Albaugh for descriptive site data; and C. Körner, C. Field and R. Norby for helpful comments on an early version.

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Correspondence to Ram Oren.

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Oren, R., Ellsworth, D., Johnsen, K. et al. Soil fertility limits carbon sequestration by forest ecosystems in a CO2-enriched atmosphere. Nature 411, 469–472 (2001).

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