A major uncertainty in the land carbon cycle is whether symbiotic nitrogen fixation acts to enhance the tropical forest carbon sink. Nitrogen-fixing trees can supply vital quantities of the growth-limiting nutrient nitrogen, but the extent to which the resulting carbon–nitrogen feedback safeguards ecosystem carbon sequestration remains unclear. We combine (i) field observations from 112 plots spanning 300 years of succession in Panamanian tropical forests, and (ii) a new model that resolves nitrogen and light competition at the scale of individual trees. Fixation doubled carbon accumulation in early succession and enhanced total carbon in mature forests by ~10% (~12MgC ha−1) through two mechanisms: (i) a direct fixation effect on tree growth, and (ii) an indirect effect on the successional sequence of non-fixing trees. We estimate that including nitrogen-fixing trees in Neotropical reforestation projects could safeguard the sequestration of 6.7 Gt CO2 over the next 20 years. Our results highlight the connection between functional diversity of plant communities and the critical ecosystem service of carbon sequestration for mitigating climate change.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Physics and Astronomy(all)
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)