Nitrogen limitation constrains sustainability of ecosystem response to CO2

Peter B Reich, Sarah E Hobbie, Tali Lee, David S. Ellsworth, Jason B. West, David Tilman, Johannes M.H. Knops, Shahid Naeem, Jared Trost

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

699 Scopus citations


Enhanced plant biomass accumulation in response to elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration could dampen the future rate of increase in CO 2 levels and associated climate warming. However, it is unknown whether CO2-induced stimulation of plant growth and biomass accumulation will be sustained or whether limited nitrogen (N) availability constrains greater plant growth in a CO2-enriched world 1-9. Here we show, after a six-year field study of perennial grassland species grown under ambient and elevated levels of CO2 and N, that low availability of N progressively suppresses the positive response of plant biomass to elevated CO2. Initially, the stimulation of total plant biomass by elevated CO2 was no greater at enriched than at ambient N supply. After four to six years, however, elevated CO2 stimulated plant biomass much less under ambient than enriched N supply. This response was consistent with the temporally divergent effects of elevated CO2 on soil and plant N dynamics at differing levels of N supply. Our results indicate that variability in availability of soil N and deposition of atmospheric N are both likely to influence the response of plant biomass accumulation to elevated atmospheric CO2. Given that limitations to productivity resulting from the insufficient availability of N are widespread in both unmanaged and managed vegetation5, 7-9, soil N supply is probably an important constraint on global terrestrial responses to elevated CO2.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)922-925
Number of pages4
Issue number7086
StatePublished - Apr 13 2006

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements We thank the US Department of Energy Program for Ecosystem Research, the National Science Foundation Long-Term Ecological Research and Biocomplexity Coupled Biogeochemical Cycles Programs, and the University of Minnesota for supporting this research.


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