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Nitrogen limitation constrains sustainability of ecosystem response to CO2

Abstract

Enhanced plant biomass accumulation in response to elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration could dampen the future rate of increase in CO2 levels and associated climate warming. However, it is unknown whether CO2-induced stimulation of plant growth and biomass accumulation will be sustained or whether limited nitrogen (N) availability constrains greater plant growth in a CO2-enriched world1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. Here we show, after a six-year field study of perennial grassland species grown under ambient and elevated levels of CO2 and N, that low availability of N progressively suppresses the positive response of plant biomass to elevated CO2. Initially, the stimulation of total plant biomass by elevated CO2 was no greater at enriched than at ambient N supply. After four to six years, however, elevated CO2 stimulated plant biomass much less under ambient than enriched N supply. This response was consistent with the temporally divergent effects of elevated CO2 on soil and plant N dynamics at differing levels of N supply. Our results indicate that variability in availability of soil N and deposition of atmospheric N are both likely to influence the response of plant biomass accumulation to elevated atmospheric CO2. Given that limitations to productivity resulting from the insufficient availability of N are widespread in both unmanaged and managed vegetation5,7,8,9, soil N supply is probably an important constraint on global terrestrial responses to elevated CO2.

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Figure 1: Effects of CO 2 and N on total plant biomass over time.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the US Department of Energy Program for Ecosystem Research, the National Science Foundation Long-Term Ecological Research and Biocomplexity Coupled Biogeochemical Cycles Programs, and the University of Minnesota for supporting this research. Author Contributions All authors were involved in the design or implementation of the experiment, or both, with P.B.R. having the major responsibility for these. P.B.R., D.E., D.T., J.K. and S.N. were involved in the initial experimental design. J.T. was responsible for a substantial fraction of the experimental management and data collection, with smaller contributions in this area from T.L., D.E., J.B.W., J.K. and S.H. P.B.R. performed the statistical analyses and wrote the paper, with assistance from S.H., T.L., D.E., S.N. and J.B.W. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Peter B. Reich.

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Reich, P., Hobbie, S., Lee, T. et al. Nitrogen limitation constrains sustainability of ecosystem response to CO2. Nature 440, 922–925 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04486

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