We investigated the response of conifer trees in northern Eurasia to climate change and increasing CO2 over the last century by measuring the carbon isotope ratio in tree rings. Samples from Larix, Pinus and Picea trees growing at 26 high-latitude sites (59–71°N) from Norway to Eastern Siberia were analysed. When comparing the periods 1861–1890 and 1961–1990, the isotope discrimination and the ratio of the intercellular to ambient CO2 concentration (ci/ca) remained constant for trees growing in mild oceanic climate and under extremely cold and dry continental conditions. This shows a strong coordination of gas-exchange processes, consisting in a biochemical acclimation and a reduction of the stomatal conductance. The correlation for ci/ca between the two investigated periods was particularly strong for Larix (r2=0.90) and Pinus (r2=0.94), but less pronounced for Picea (r2=0.47). Constant ci/ca under increasing CO2 in the atmosphere resulted in improved intrinsic water-use efficiency (Wi), the amount of water loss at the leaf level per unit carbon gain. We found that 125 out of 126 trees showed increasing Wi from 1861 to 1890 to 1961 to 1990, with an average improvement of 19.2±0.9% (mean±SE). The adaptation in gas exchange and reduced transpiration of trees growing in this region must have had a strong impact on the water and energy budget, resulting in a drier and warmer surface air layer today than would exist without this vegetation–climate feedback.
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