The effect of experimental ecosystem warming on CO2 fluxes in a montane meadow

Scott R. Saleska, John Harte, Margaret S. Torn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

143 Scopus citations


Climatic change is predicted to alter rates of soil respiration and assimilation of carbon by plants. Net loss of carbon from ecosystems would form a positive feedback enhancing anthropogenic global warming. We tested the effect of increased heat input, one of the most certain impacts of global warming, on net ecosystem carbon exchange in a Rocky Mountain montane meadow. Overhead heaters were used to increase the radiative heat flux into plots spanning a moisture and vegetation gradient. We measured net whole-ecosystem CO2 fluxes using a closed-path chamber system, relatively nondisturbing bases, and a simple model to compensate for both slow chamber leaks and the CO2 concentration-dependence of photosynthetic uptake, in 1993 and 1994. In 1994, we also measured soil respiration separately. The heating treatment altered the timing and magnitude of net carbon fluxes into the dry zone of the plots in 1993 (reducing uptake by ~100 g carbon m-2), but had an undetectable effect on carbon fluxes into the moist zone. During a strong drought year (1994), heating altered the timing, but did not significantly alter the cumulative magnitude, of net carbon uptake in the dry zone. Soil respiration measurements showed that when differences were detected in dry zone carbon fluxes, they were caused by changes in carbon input from photosynthesis, not by temperature-driven changes in carbon output from soil respiration. When differences were detected in dry-zone carbon fluxes, they were caused by changes in carbon input from photosynthesis, not by a temperature-driven changes in carbon output from soil respiration. Regression analysis suggested that the reduction in carbon inputs from plants was due to a combination of two soil moisture effects: a direct physiological response to decreased soil moisture, and a shift in plant community composition from high-productivity species to low-productivity species that are more drought tolerant. These results partially support predictions that warming may cause net carbon losses from some terrestrial ecosystems. They also suggest, however, that changes in soil moisture caused by global warming may be as important in driving ecosystem response as the direct effects of increased soil temperature.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)125-141
Number of pages17
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • CO
  • Carbon flux
  • Climate change
  • Feedback
  • Greenhouse gas
  • Montane meadow
  • Soil respiration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • Environmental Science(all)


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