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Effects of climate change on labile and structural carbon in Douglas-fir needles as estimated by δ13C and Carea measurements


E. A. Hobbie, Complex Systems Research Center, Morse Hall, University of New Hampshire, Durham New Hampshire 03824-3525, USA, fax + 1 603 862 0188, e-mail:


Models of photosynthesis, respiration, and export predict that foliar labile carbon (C) should increase with elevated CO2 but decrease with elevated temperature. Sugars, starch, and protein can be compared between treatments, but these compounds make up only a fraction of the total labile pool. Moreover, it is difficult to assess the turnover of labile carbon between years for evergreen foliage. Here, we combined changes in foliar Carea (C concentration on an areal basis) as needles aged with changes in foliar isotopic composition (δ13C) caused by inputs of 13C-depleted CO2 to estimate labile and structural C in needles of different ages in a four-year, closed-chamber mesocosm experiment in which Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco) seedlings were exposed to elevated temperature (ambient + 3.5 °C) and CO2 (ambient + 179 ppm). Declines in δ13C of needle cohorts as they aged indicated incorporation of newly fixed labile or structural carbon. The δ13C calculations showed that new C was 41 ± 2% and 28 ± 3% of total needle carbon in second- and third-year needles, respectively, with higher proportions of new C in elevated than ambient CO2 chambers (e.g. 42 ± 2% vs. 37 ± 6%, respectively, for second-year needles). Relative to ambient CO2, elevated CO2 increased labile C in both first- and second-year needles. Relative to ambient temperature, elevated temperature diminished labile C in second-year needles but not in first-year needles, perhaps because of differences in sink strength between the two needle age classes. We hypothesize that plant-soil feedbacks on nitrogen supply contributed to higher photosynthetic rates under elevated temperatures that partly compensated for higher turnover rates of labile C. Strong positive correlations between labile C and sugar concentrations suggested that labile C was primarily determined by carbohydrates. Labile C was negatively correlated with concentrations of cellulose and protein. Elevated temperature increased foliar %C, possibly due to a shift of labile constituents from low %C carbohydrates to relatively high %C protein. Decreased sugar concentrations and increased nitrogen concentrations with elevated temperature were consistent with this explanation. Because foliar constituents that vary in isotopic signature also vary in concentrations with leaf age or environmental conditions, inferences of ci/ca values from δ13C of bulk leaf tissue should be done cautiously. Tracing of 13C through foliar carbon pools may provide new insight into foliar C constituents and turnover.