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Decade-long soil nitrogen constraint on the CO2 fertilization of plant biomass

Nature Climate Change volume 3, pages 278282 (2013) | Download Citation


The stimulation of plant growth by elevated CO2 concentration has been widely observed. Such fertilization, and associated carbon storage, could dampen future increases in atmospheric CO2 levels and associated climate warming1. However, the CO2 fertilization of plant biomass may be sensitive to nitrogen supply2,3,4. Herein we show that in the latest decade of a long-term perennial grassland experiment, low ambient soil nitrogen availability constrained the positive response of plant biomass to elevated CO2, a result not seen in the first years (1998–2000) of the study. From 2001 to 2010, elevated CO2 stimulated plant biomass half as much under ambient as under enriched nitrogen supply, an effect mirrored over this period by more positive effects of elevated CO2 on soil nitrogen supply (net nitrogen mineralization) and plant nitrogen status under enriched than ambient nitrogen supply. The results did not strongly support either the progressive nitrogen limitation hypothesis, or the alternative hypothesis of priming of soil nitrogen release by elevated CO2. As nitrogen limitation to productivity is widespread, persistent nitrogen constraints on terrestrial responses to rising CO2 are probably pervasive. Further incorporation of such interactions into Earth system models is recommended to better predict future CO2 fertilization effects and impacts on the global carbon cycle.

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This work was supported by the US Department of Energy (DOE/DE-FG02-96ER62291 and DE-FC02-06ER64158) and the National Science Foundation (NSF Biocomplexity 0322057, NSF LTER DEB 9411972 (1994–2000), DEB 0080382 (2000–2006), and DEB 0620652 (2006–2012), and NSF LTREB 0716587) and the University of Minnesota.

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  1. Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota, 1530 Cleveland Avenue North, St Paul, Minnesota 55108, USA

    • Peter B. Reich
  2. Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, University of Western Sydney, Penrith NSW 2753, Australia

    • Peter B. Reich
  3. Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota, 1987 Upper Buford Circle, St Paul, Minnesota 55108, USA

    • Sarah E. Hobbie


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P.B.R. designed, orchestrated, coordinated and managed the implementation of the experiment; conducted the data analyses; and wrote the manuscript. S.H. assisted with all of these except the study design.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Peter B. Reich.

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