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Rising concentrations of atmospheric CO2 have increased growth in natural stands of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides)


Christopher T. Cole, e-mail:


As atmospheric CO2 levels rise, temperate and boreal forests in the Northern Hemisphere are gaining importance as carbon sinks. Quantification of that role, however, has been difficult due to the confounding effects of climate change. Recent large-scale experiments with quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), a dominant species in many northern forest ecosystems, indicate that elevated CO2 levels can enhance net primary production. Field studies also reveal that droughts contribute to extensive aspen mortality. To complement this work, we analyzed how the growth of wild aspen clones in Wisconsin has responded to historical shifts in CO2 and climate, accounting for age, genotype (microsatellite heterozygosity), and other factors. Aspen growth has increased an average of 53% over the past five decades, primarily in response to the 19.2% rise in ambient CO2 levels. CO2-induced growth is particularly enhanced during periods of high moisture availability. The analysis accounts for the highly nonlinear changes in growth rate with age, and is unaffected by sex or location sampled. Growth also increases with individual heterozygosity, but this heterozygote advantage has not changed with rising levels of CO2 or moisture. Thus, increases in future growth predicted from previous large-scale, common-garden work are already evident in this abundant and ecologically important tree species. Owing to aspen's role as a foundation species in many North American forest ecosystems, CO2-stimulated growth is likely to have repercussions for numerous associated species and ecosystem processes.