Transient nature of CO2 fertilization in Arctic tundra

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Abstract

THERE has been much debate about the effect of increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations on plant net primary production1,3 and on net ecosystem CO2 flux3–10. Apparently conflicting experimental findings could be the result of differences in genetic potential11–15 and resource availability16–20, different experimental conditions21–24 and the fact that many studies have focused on individual components of the system2,21,25–27 rather than the whole ecosystem. Here we present results of an in situ experiment on the response of an intact native ecosystem to elevated CO2. An undisturbed patch of tussock tundra at Toolik Lake, Alaska, was enclosed in greenhouses in which the CO2 level, moisture and temperature could be controlled28, and was subjected to ambient (340 p.p.m.) and elevated (680 p.p.m.) levels of CO2 and temperature (+4 °C). Air humidity, precipitation and soil water table were maintained at ambient control levels. For a doubled CO2 level alone, complete homeostasis of the CO2 flux was re-established within three years, whereas the regions exposed to a combination of higher temperatures and doubled CO2 showed persistent fertilization effect on net ecosystem carbon sequestration over this time. This difference may be due to enhanced sink activity from the direct effects of higher temperatures on growth16,29–33 and to indirect effects from enhanced nutrient supply caused by increased mineralization10,11,19,27,34. These results indicate that the responses of native ecosystems to elevated CO2 may not always be positive, and are unlikely to be straightforward. Clearly, CO2 fertilization effects must always be considered in the context of genetic limitation, resource availability and other such factors.

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