Through enhanced tree dynamics carbon dioxide enrichment may cause tropical forests to lose carbon

Christian Körner

Abstract

The fixation and storage of C by tropical forests, which contain close to half of the globe's biomass C, may be affected by elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration. Classical theoretical approaches assume a uniform stimulation of photosynthesis and growth across taxa. Direct assessments of the C balance either by flux studies or by repeated forest inventories also suggest a current net uptake, although magnitudes sometimes exceed those missing required to balance the global C cycle. Reasons for such discrepancies may lie in the nature of forest dynamics and in differential responses of taxa or plant functional types. In this contribution I argue that CO2 enrichment may cause forests to become more dynamic and that faster tree turnover may in fact convert a stimulatory effect of elevated CO2 on photosynthesis and growth into a long–term net biomass C loss by favouring shorter–lived trees of lower wood density. At the least, this is a scenario that deserves inclusion into long–term projections of the C relations of tropical forests. Species and plant functional type specific responses (‘biodiversity effects’) and forest dynamics need to be accounted for in projections of future C storage and cycling in tropical forests.