Long-term effects of elevated atmospheric CO2 on species composition and productivity of a southern African C4 dominated grassland in the vicinity of a CO2 exhalation

Stock W.D. ; Ludwig F. ; Morrow C. ; Midgley G.F. ; Wand S.J.E. ; Allsopp N. ; Bell T.L. (2005)


We describe the long-term effects of a CO2 exhalation, created more than 70 years ago, on a natural C4 dominated sub-tropical grassland in terms of ecosystem structure and functioning. We tested whether long-term CO2 enrichment changes the competitive balance between plants with C3 and C4 photosynthetic pathways and how CO2 enrichment has affected species composition, plant growth responses, leaf properties and soil nutrient, carbon and water dynamics. Long-term effects of elevated CO2 on plant community composition and system processes in this sub-tropical grassland indicate very subtle changes in ecosystem functioning and no changes in species composition and dominance which could be ascribed to elevated CO2 alone. Species compositional data and soil δ13C isotopic evidence suggest no detectable effect of CO2 enrichment on C3:C4 plant mixtures and individual species dominance. Contrary to many general predictions C3 grasses did not become more abundant and C3 shrubs and trees did not invade the site. No season length stimulation of plant growth was found even after 5 years of exposure to CO2 concentrations averaging 610 μmol mol-1. Leaf properties such as total N decreased in the C 3 but not C4 grass under elevated CO2 while total non-structural carbohydrate accumulation was not affected. Elevated CO2 possibly lead to increased end-of-season soil water contents and this result agrees with earlier studies despite the topographic water gradient being a confounding problem at our research site. Long-term CO2 enrichment also had little effect on soil carbon storage with no detectable changes in soil organic matter found. There were indications that potential soil respiration and N mineralization rates could be higher in soils close to the CO2 source. The conservative response of this grassland suggests that many of the reported effects of elevated CO2 on similar ecosystems could be short duration experimental artefacts that disappear under long-term elevated CO2 conditions. © Springer 2005.

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