Functional responses of plants to elevated atmospheric CO2– do photosynthetic and productivity data from FACE experiments support early predictions?


  • Robert S. Nowak,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Science, University of Nevada–Reno, Reno, NV 89557 USA;
      Author for correspondence: Robert S. Nowak Tel: +1 775 7841656 Fax: +1 775 7844789 Email:
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  • David S. Ellsworth,

    1. School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109 USA;
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  • Stanley D. Smith

    1. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Nevada–Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV 89154 USA
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Author for correspondence: Robert S. Nowak Tel: +1 775 7841656 Fax: +1 775 7844789 Email:



  • Summary  1

  • I.  Introduction  2
  • II.  Early assessments of [CO2] responses in natural ecosystems   2
  • III.  Global network of FACE sites   4
  • IV.  Assimilation and leaf N-content   5
  • V.  Primary productivity  13
  • VI.  Response of plant functional types  20
  • VII. Conclusions   23
  • Acknowledgements  24

  • References   24


Results from 16 free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE) sites representing four different global vegetation types indicate that only some early predictions of the effects of increasing CO2 concentration (elevated [CO2]) on plant and ecosystem processes are well supported. Predictions for leaf CO2 assimilation (Anet) generally fit our understanding of limitations to photosynthesis, and the FACE experiments indicate concurrent enhancement of photosynthesis and of partial downregulation. In addition, most herbaceous species had reduced leaf nitrogen (N)-content under elevated [CO2] and thus only a modest enhancement of Anet, whereas most woody species had little change in leaf N with elevated [CO2] but a larger enhancement of Anet. Early predictions for primary production are more mixed. Predictions that enhancement of productivity would be greater in drier ecosystems or in drier years has only limited support. Furthermore, differences in productivity enhancements among six plant functional types were not significant. By contrast, increases in productivity enhancements with increased N availability are well supported by the FACE results. Thus, neither a resource-based conceptual model nor a plant functional type conceptual model is exclusively supported by FACE results, but rather both species identity and resource availability are important factors influencing the response of ecosystems to elevated [CO2].