Soil moisture supply and atmospheric demand for water independently limit—and profoundly affect—vegetation productivity and water use during periods of hydrologic stress1,2,3,4. Disentangling the impact of these two drivers on ecosystem carbon and water cycling is difficult because they are often correlated, and experimental tools for manipulating atmospheric demand in the field are lacking. Consequently, the role of atmospheric demand is often not adequately factored into experiments or represented in models5,6,7. Here we show that atmospheric demand limits surface conductance and evapotranspiration to a greater extent than soil moisture in many biomes, including mesic forests that are of particular importance to the terrestrial carbon sink8,9. Further, using projections from ten general circulation models, we show that climate change will increase the importance of atmospheric constraints to carbon and water fluxes in all ecosystems. Consequently, atmospheric demand will become increasingly important for vegetation function, accounting for >70% of growing season limitation to surface conductance in mesic temperate forests. Our results suggest that failure to consider the limiting role of atmospheric demand in experimental designs, simulation models and land management strategies will lead to incorrect projections of ecosystem responses to future climate conditions.

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We acknowledge the US Department of Energy for its support of the Ameriflux Management Project administered by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and for its support of the Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison Project. We thank the Ameriflux site teams for sharing their data, and the individual climate modelling groups for sharing their model output. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP). K.A.N. acknowledges National Science Foundation (NSF) grant DEB 1552747. P.C.S. acknowledges NSF grants DEB 1552976 and EF 1241881. S.A.P. acknowledges NSF grant EAR 125501. L.W. acknowledges NSF grant EAR 155489. B.N.S. acknowledges support from NOAA/GFDL-Princeton University Cooperative Institute for Climate Science.

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  1. Indiana University, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Bloomington, Indiana 47405, USA

    • Kimberly A. Novick
  2. Indiana University, Department of Geography, Bloomington, Indiana 47405, USA

    • Darren L. Ficklin
  3. Montana State University, Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, Bozeman, Montana 59717, USA

    • Paul C. Stoy
  4. Clark University, Graduate School of Geography, Worcester, Massachusetts 01610, USA

    • Christopher A. Williams
  5. The Ohio State University, Department of Civil, Environmental & Geodetic Engineering, Columbus, Ohio 43210, USA

    • Gil Bohrer
  6. USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station, Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, Otto, North Carolina 28763, USA

    • A. Christopher Oishi
  7. University of Arizona, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA

    • Shirley A. Papuga
  8. University of Colorado, Department of Geography, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0260, USA

    • Peter D. Blanken
  9. North Carolina State University, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Raleigh, North Carolina 27695, USA

    • Asko Noormets
  10. Princeton University, Department of Geosciences, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA

    • Benjamin N. Sulman
  11. Southwest Watershed Research Center, USDA-ARS, Tucson, Arizona 85719, USA

    • Russell L. Scott
  12. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), Department of Earth Sciences, Indianapolis, Indiana 46202, USA

    • Lixin Wang
  13. Indiana University, Department of Biology, Bloomington, Indiana 47405, USA

    • Richard P. Phillips


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K.A.N. designed the study and methodology, with substantial input from all co-authors, especially D.L.F., C.A.W. and R.P.P. D.L.F. obtained and processed the future climate projections. K.A.N., G.B., S.A.P., P.D.B., A.N., B.N.S., R.L.S., R.P.P. and P.C.S. contributed ecosystem flux data. All authors contributed to data analysis and interpretation. K.A.N. and D.L.F. drafted the manuscript. All authors commented on and approved the final manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kimberly A. Novick.

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