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Prolonged suppression of ecosystem carbon dioxide uptake after an anomalously warm year


Terrestrial ecosystems control carbon dioxide fluxes to and from the atmosphere1,2 through photosynthesis and respiration, a balance between net primary productivity and heterotrophic respiration, that determines whether an ecosystem is sequestering carbon or releasing it to the atmosphere. Global1,3,4,5 and site-specific6 data sets have demonstrated that climate and climate variability influence biogeochemical processes that determine net ecosystem carbon dioxide exchange (NEE) at multiple timescales. Experimental data necessary to quantify impacts of a single climate variable, such as temperature anomalies, on NEE and carbon sequestration of ecosystems at interannual timescales have been lacking. This derives from an inability of field studies to avoid the confounding effects of natural intra-annual and interannual variability in temperature and precipitation. Here we present results from a four-year study using replicate 12,000-kg intact tallgrass prairie monoliths located in four 184-m3 enclosed lysimeters7. We exposed 6 of 12 monoliths to an anomalously warm year in the second year of the study8 and continuously quantified rates of ecosystem processes, including NEE. We find that warming decreases NEE in both the extreme year and the following year by inducing drought that suppresses net primary productivity in the extreme year and by stimulating heterotrophic respiration of soil biota in the subsequent year. Our data indicate that two years are required for NEE in the previously warmed experimental ecosystems to recover to levels measured in the control ecosystems. This time lag caused net ecosystem carbon sequestration in previously warmed ecosystems to be decreased threefold over the study period, compared with control ecosystems. Our findings suggest that more frequent anomalously warm years9, a possible consequence of increasing anthropogenic carbon dioxide levels10, may lead to a sustained decrease in carbon dioxide uptake by terrestrial ecosystems.

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Figure 1: Four-year time courses covering pretreatment (11 February 2002 to 10 February 2003), treatment and post-treatment years.
Figure 2: Effects of an anomalously warm year on annual ecosystem C flows.
Figure 3: Actual change in ecosystem annual NEP for control and warmed ecosystems from 2002 to 2003, 2002 to 2004, and 2002 to 2005.


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We thank E. Kessler and the University of Oklahoma for the use of the Kessler Farm Field Laboratory; R. Kreidberg for editorial assistance; and J. Amthor, M. Bahn, C. Körner, D. Obrist and G. Wohlfahrt, for critical review of an early draft of this manuscript. This study was funded by the US National Science Foundation’s Integrated Research Challenges in Environmental Biology program, with additional support from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) for necessary upgrades to the EcoCELL facility. We are very grateful to DRI, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Nevada–Reno teams for technical assistance, facilities support, and administrative expertise (also see Supplementary Information).

Author Contributions J.A.A. and P.S.J.V. headed up the study including leading proposal writing, project coordination, data interpretation and analysis, and manuscript preparation. P.S.J.V., R.L.J., J.D.L., D.E.S., J.A.A. and W.G.C. were directly involved in all aspects of the study on a day-to-day basis, with A.J.L., J.A.A., L.L.W. and R.A.S. focusing on plant community aspects; C.M.B. contributing to hydrological measurements; J.D.L. contributing to quantification of plant canopy dynamics; P.S.J.V. contributing particularly to measurements of soil CO2 fluxes and soil C and N; and D.W.J. contributing to estimation of soil nutrients. D.S.S., Y.L., B.H.B., J.S.C., P.S.J.V. and J.A.A. developed the idea for the research. C.v.N. built and managed the database for the project and contributed to data analyses. P.E.B. coordinated outreach activities to local schools and brought research to the communities of Reno and Las Vegas. R.L.J., J.D.L. and P.S.J.V. worked closely with J.A.A. on data analysis and manuscript preparation. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to John A. Arnone III.

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Arnone III, J., Verburg, P., Johnson, D. et al. Prolonged suppression of ecosystem carbon dioxide uptake after an anomalously warm year. Nature 455, 383–386 (2008).

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