The University of Arizona

Implications of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration for rangelands.

H.W. Polley

Abstract

Extensive rangelands and other vegetation types that we know today formed while atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration was low (50 to 75% of today's concentration). Fossil fuel burning and deforestation and other land use changes during the last 200 years have increased CO2 concentration by about 30%, to the present 360 parts per million (ppm). Atmospheric CO2 will continue to rise during the next century, possibly to concentrations that are unprecedented for the last several million years. Much of the potential importance of CO2 concentration to vegetation derives from its influence on plant carbon balance and water relations. Plants grow by assimilating CO2 that diffuses into leaves through stomatal pores. Inevitably associated with CO2 uptake is transpirational loss of water vapor through stomata. Transpiration rates usually decline as CO2 increases, while, in many plants, photosynthesis and growth increase. These"primary" responses to CO2 can lead to a multitude of changes at the plant and ecosystem levels, ranging from alteration of the chemical composition of plant tissues to changes in ecosystem function and the species composition of plant communities. The direct physiological responses of plants to CO2 and expression of these responses at higher scales differ among species and growing condition. Growth response to CO2 is usually highest in rapidly-growing plants that quickly export the carbohydrates formed in leaves and use them for storage or new growth and allocate a high proportion of fixed carbon to produce leaves. Growth is also more responsive to CO2 in plants with the C3 (most woody plants and 'cool-season' grasses) than C4 photosynthetic pathway (most 'warm-season' grasses). These and other differences among species could lead to changes in the composition of rangeland vegetation, but generalizations are difficult. On many rangelands, species abundances are determined more by morphological and phenological attributes that influence plant access to essential resources like nitrogen and light and reaction to fire, grazing, and other disturbances than by physiological traits that are sensitive to CO2 concentration. Species composition probably will be most responsive to CO2 on moderately water-limited and disturbed rangelands where multiple positive effects of CO2 on plant water relations can be expressed and competition for light is minimized. Greatest initial changes in species composition likely will occur on C3/C4 grasslands and at the transition between grasslands and woodlands. Plant production should also increase on water-limited rangelands, but CO2 may have little influence on production when nutrient elements like nitrogen are severely limiting.
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