Ecosystem effects of CO2 concentration: Evidence from past climates

I. C. Prentice, S. P. Harrison

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Atmospheric CO2 concentration has varied from minima of 170-200 ppm in glacials to maxima of 280-300 ppm in the recent interglacials. Photosynthesis by C3 plants is highly sensitive to CO2 concentration variations in this range. Physiological consequences of the CO2 changes should therefore be discernible in palaeodata. Several lines of evidence support this expectation. Reduced terrestrial carbon storage during glacials, indicated by the shift in stable isotope composition of dissolved inorganic carbon in the ocean, cannot be explained by climate or sea-level changes. It is however consistent with predictions of current processbased models that propagate known physiological CO2 effects into net primary production at the ecosystem scale. Restricted forest cover during glacial periods, indicated by pollen assemblages dominated by non-arboreal taxa, cannot be reproduced accurately by palaeoclimate models unless CO2 effects on C3-C4 plant competition are also modelled. It follows that methods to reconstruct climate from palaeodata should account for CO2 concentration changes. When they do so, they yield results more consistent with palaeoclimate models. In conclusion, the palaeorecord of the Late Quaternary, interpreted with the help of climate and ecosystem models, provides evidence that CO2 effects at the ecosystem scale are neither trivial nor transient.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)297-307
Number of pages11
JournalClimate of the Past
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) [2009]. Originally published in [Prentice, I. C. and Harrison, S. P.: Ecosystem effects of CO2 concentration: evidence from past climates, Clim. Past, 5, 297-307, doi:10.5194/cp-5-297-2009, 2009].Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


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