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Plant growth enhancement by elevated CO2 eliminated by joint water and nitrogen limitation


Rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations can fertilize plant growth. The resulting increased plant uptake of CO2 could, in turn, slow increases in atmospheric CO2 levels and associated climate warming. CO2 fertilization effects may be enhanced when water availability is low, because elevated CO2 also leads to improved plant water-use efficiency. However, CO2 fertilization effects may be weaker when plant growth is limited by nutrient availability. How variation in soil nutrients and water may act together to influence CO2 fertilization is unresolved. Here we report plant biomass levels from a five-year, open-air experiment in a perennial grassland under two contrasting levels of atmospheric CO2, soil nitrogen and summer rainfall, respectively. We find that the presence of a CO2 fertilization effect depends on the amount of available nitrogen and water. Specifically, elevated CO2 levels led to an increase in plant biomass of more than 33% when summer rainfall, nitrogen supply, or both were at the higher levels (ambient for rainfall and elevated for soil nitrogen). But elevated CO2 concentrations did not increase plant biomass when both rainfall and nitrogen were at their lower level. We conclude that given widespread, simultaneous limitation by water and nutrients, large stimulation of biomass by rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations may not be ubiquitous.

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Figure 1: Biomass tracks rainfall inputs across treatments and years.
Figure 2: Biomass in relation to treatments and number of limiting resources.


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This research has been supported by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) Long-Term Ecological Research (DEB-9411972, DEB-0080382, DEB-0620652, and DEB-1234162), Biocomplexity Coupled Biogeochemical Cycles (DEB-0322057), Long-Term Research in Environmental Biology (DEB-0716587, DEB-1242531) and Ecosystem Sciences (NSF DEB-1120064) Programs; as well as the U.S. Department of Energy Program for Ecosystem Research (DE-FG02-96ER62291) and National Institute for Climatic Change Research (DE-FC02-06ER64158).

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This experiment was designed and implemented by all three authors; P.B.R. did the analyses and wrote the initial draft; all three authors contributed to editing and revising the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Peter B. Reich.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Reich, P., Hobbie, S. & Lee, T. Plant growth enhancement by elevated CO2 eliminated by joint water and nitrogen limitation. Nature Geosci 7, 920–924 (2014).

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