The University Record, June 18, 2001

Soil fertility limits trees’ ability to absorb excess carbon dioxide

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

David S. Ellsworth monitors the photosynthesis of trees in a North Carolina forest. (Photo courtesy David S. Ellsworth)
A field study on the effects of elevated carbon dioxide (CO2) on forest ecosystems raises doubts about the ability of trees to absorb excess CO2 accumulating in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Results of the seven-year study, published in a recent issue of Nature, show that some forests will not increase the amount of carbon they sequester—at least not enough to compensate for increasing atmospheric CO2. Soil fertility is a key factor in determining the long-term growth response to elevated CO2, according to co-principal investigator David S. Ellsworth, assistant professor of plant physiological ecology.

“When we exposed trees in low-nutrient soil to elevated CO2, they maintained growth increases only with added nutrients,” Ellsworth says. “While CO2 initially acts as a stimulus to the tree’s physiology, our experiments suggest that short-term increases in growth are not sustainable over the long term in low-nutrient environments.”

The open-air field study is the first of its kind to examine the effects of elevated CO2 on forests growing in nutrient-limited environments over many years. The study included the longest running forest-based Free Air CO2 Enrichment (FACE) experiment. By exposing trees to elevated CO2 in an otherwise natural setting, the researchers were able to simulate conditions predicted for 50 years from now.

The FACE experiment was conducted on a moderately fertile site at the Duke Forest of Duke University. A second field experiment used CO2 enrichment in chambers on an infertile site in the sand hills of North Carolina. Both experiments exposed maturing loblolly pine trees to levels of CO2 predicted to accumulate in the Earth’s atmosphere 50 years from now.

In the FACE experiment, the researchers compared growth of CO2-treated trees with untreated trees in an adjacent plot. Averaged over the first three years of the experiment, the elevated CO2 plot showed a 34 percent increase in growth relative to the ambient CO2 (untreated) plot. However, that increase dropped to 6 percent over the following four years.

To test whether nutrient limitations reduce the tree response to elevated CO2, the researchers added a balanced fertilizer to half of the FACE area. Averaged over 1999 and 2000, trees grown under elevated CO2 without nutrient addition increased growth at an annual rate of only 7 percent, while the fertilized trees grown in ambient CO2 increased annual growth by 15 percent.

The combination of improved nutrition and elevated CO2 increased growth by 47 percent at the site. This clearly indicates a synergistic effect of CO2 and nutrient supply, the researchers conclude.

At the infertile site, trees without added nutrition showed virtually no growth response to elevated CO2 in two years. Under optimal nutrition and ambient CO2, growth increased 21 percent. In trees subjected to the combination of improved nutrition and elevated CO2, growth was 74 percent—more than three times the sum of separate responses.

These findings suggest that growth responses of pine forests to elevated CO2 will be highly variable and depend on site fertility, to the point that trees growing on nutritionally poor sites may not respond at all.