Nitrogen resorption in senescing tree leaves in a warmer, CO2-enriched atmosephere
The prediction that litter quality, and hence litter decomposition rates, would be reduced when plants are grown in a CO2-enriched atmosphere has been based on the observation that foliar N concentrations usually are lower in elevated [CO2]. The implicit assumption is that the N concentration in leaf litter reflects the N concentration in green leaves. Here we evaluate that assumption by exploring whether the process of seasonal nutrient resorption is different in CO2-enriched plants. Nitrogen resorption was studied in two species of maple trees (Acer rubrum L. and A. saccharum Marsh.), which were planted in unfertilized soil and grown in open-top chambers with ambient or elevated [CO2] in combination with ambient or elevated temperature. In the second growing season, prior to autumn senescence, individual leaves were collected and analyzed for N and dry matter content. Other leaves at the same and an adjacent node were collected for analysis as they senesced and abscised. This data set was augmented with litter samples from the first growing season and with green leaves and leaf litter collected from white oak (Quercus alba L.) saplings grown in ambient and elevated [CO2] in open-top chambers. In chambers maintained at ambient temperature, CO2 enrichment reduced green leaf N concentrations by 25% in A. rubrum and 19% in A. saccharum. CO2 enrichment did not significantly reduce resorption efficiency so the N concentration also was reduced in litter. There were, however, few effects of [CO2] on N dynamics in these leaves; differences in N concentration usually were the result of increased dry matter content of leaves. The effects of elevated [CO2] on litter N are inherently more difficult to detect than differences in green leaves because factors that affect senescence and resorption increase variability. This is especially so when other environmental factors cause a disruption in the normal progress of resorption, such as in the first year when warming delayed senescence until leaves were killed by an early frost. The results of this experiment support the approach used in ecosystem models in which resorption efficiency is constant in ambient and elevated [CO2], but the results also indicate that other factors can alter resorption efficiency.
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