Decreased water limitation under elevated CO2 amplifies potential for forest carbon sinks

Caroline E. Farrior, Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe, Ray Dybzinski, Simon A. Levin, Stephen W. Pacala

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


Increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations and changing rainfall regimes are creating novel environments for plant communities around the world. The resulting changes in plant productivity and allocation among tissues will have significant impacts on forest carbon storage and the global carbon cycle, yet these effects may depend on mechanisms not included in global models. Here we focus on the role of individual-level competition for water and light in forest carbon allocation and storage across rainfall regimes. We find that the complexity of plant responses to rainfall regimes in experiments can be explained by individual-based competition for water and light within a continuously varying soil moisture environment. Further, we find that elevated CO2 leads to large amplifications of carbon storage when it alleviates competition for water by incentivizing competitive plants to divert carbon from short-lived fine roots to long-lived woody biomass. Overall, we find that plant dependence on rainfall regimes and plant responses to added CO2 are complex, but understandable. The insights developed here will serve as an important foundation as we work to predict the responses of plants to the full, multidimensional reality of climate change, which involves not only changes in rainfall and CO2 but also changes in temperature, nutrient availability, and disturbance rates, among others.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7213-7218
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number23
StatePublished - Jun 9 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Carbon storage
  • Evolutionarily stable strategy
  • Forest dynamics
  • Plant allocation
  • Rainfall


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