The composition and successional status of a forest affect carbon storage and net ecosystem productivity, yet it remains unclear whether elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) will impact rates and trajectories of forest succession. We examined how CO2 enrichment (+200 μL CO2/L air differential) affects forest succession through growth and survivorship of tree seedlings, as part of the Duke Forest free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE) experiment in North Carolina, USA. We planted 2352 seedlings of 14 species in the low light forest understory and determined effects of elevated CO2 on individual plant growth, survival, and total sample biomass accumulation, an integrator of plant growth and survivorship over time, for six years. We used a hierarchical Bayes framework to accommodate the uncertainty associated with the availability of light and the variability in growth among individual plants.
We found that most species did not exhibit strong responses to CO2. Ulmus alata (+21%), Quercus alba (+9.5%), and nitrogen-fixing Robinia pseudoacacia (+230%) exhibited greater mean annual relative growth rates under elevated CO2 than under ambient conditions. The effects of CO2 were small relative to variability within populations; however, some species grew better under low light conditions when exposed to elevated CO2 than they did under ambient conditions. These species include shade-intolerant Liriodendron tulipifera and Liquidambar styraciflua, intermediate-tolerant Quercus velutina, and shade-tolerant Acer barbatum, A. rubrum, Prunus serotina,Ulmus alata, and Cercis canadensis. Contrary to our expectation, shade-intolerant trees did not survive better with CO2 enrichment, and population-scale responses to CO2 were influenced by survival probabilities in low light. CO2 enrichment did not increase rates of sample biomass accumulation for most species, but it did stimulate biomass growth of shade-tolerant taxa, particularly Acer barbatum and Ulmus alata. Our data suggest a small CO2 fertilization effect on tree productivity, and the possibility of reduced carbon accumulation rates relative to today's forests due to changes in species composition.