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U-M ecologist: Future forests may soak up more carbon dioxide than previously believed

s studies have concluded that this growth spurt would be short-lived, grinding to a halt when the trees can no longer extract the essential nutrient nitrogen from the soil.

But in the Rhinelander study, the trees bathed in elevated carbon dioxide continued to grow at an accelerated rate throughout the 12-year experiment. In the final three years of the study, the CO2-soaked trees grew 26 percent more than those exposed to normal levels of carbon dioxide.

It appears that the extra carbon dioxide allowed trees to grow more small roots and "forage" more successfully for nitrogen in the soil, Zak said. At the same time, the rate at which microorganisms released nitrogen back to the soil, as fallen leaves and branches decayed, increased.

"The greater growth has been sustained by an acceleration, rather than a slowing down, of soil nitrogen cycling," Zak said. "Under elevated carbon dioxide, the trees did a better job of getting nitrogen out of the soil, and there was more of it for plants to use."

Zak stressed that growth-enhancing effects of CO2 in forests will eventually "hit the wall" and come to a halt. The trees' roots will eventually "fully exploit" the soil's nitrogen resources. No one knows how long it will take to reach that limit, he said.

The ozone portion of the 12-year experiment also held surprises.

Ground-level ozone is known to damage plant tissues and interfere with photosynthesis. Conventional wisdom has held that in the future, increasing levels of ozone would constrain the degree to which rising levels of carbon dioxide would promote tree growth, canceling out some of a forest's ability to buffer projected climate warming.

In the first few years of the Rhinelander experiment, that's exactly what was observed. Trees exposed to elevated levels of ozone did not grow as fast as other trees. But by the end of study, ozone had no effect at all on forest productivity.

"What happened is t

Contact: Jim Erickson
University of Michigan

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U-M ecologist: Future forests may soak up more carbon dioxide than previously believed
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