The impact of rising CO2 and acclimation on the response of US forests to global warming

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Dec 17;116(51):25734-25744. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1913072116. Epub 2019 Nov 25.


The response of forests to climate change depends in part on whether the photosynthetic benefit from increased atmospheric CO2 (∆Ca = future minus historic CO2) compensates for increased physiological stresses from higher temperature (∆T). We predicted the outcome of these competing responses by using optimization theory and a mechanistic model of tree water transport and photosynthesis. We simulated current and future productivity, stress, and mortality in mature monospecific stands with soil, species, and climate sampled from 20 continental US locations. We modeled stands with and without acclimation to ∆Ca and ∆T, where acclimated forests adjusted leaf area, photosynthetic capacity, and stand density to maximize productivity while avoiding stress. Without acclimation, the ∆Ca-driven boost in net primary productivity (NPP) was compromised by ∆T-driven stress and mortality associated with vascular failure. With acclimation, the ∆Ca-driven boost in NPP and stand biomass (C storage) was accentuated for cooler futures but negated for warmer futures by a ∆T-driven reduction in NPP and biomass. Thus, hotter futures reduced forest biomass through either mortality or acclimation. Forest outcomes depended on whether projected climatic ∆Ca/∆T ratios were above or below physiological thresholds that neutralized the negative impacts of warming. Critically, if forests do not acclimate, the ∆Ca/∆T must be above ca 89 ppm⋅°C-1 to avoid chronic stress, a threshold met by 55% of climate projections. If forests do acclimate, the ∆Ca/∆T must rise above ca 67 ppm⋅°C-1 for NPP and biomass to increase, a lower threshold met by 71% of projections.

Keywords: acclimation; climate change; drought; forest resilience; vegetation modeling.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization / physiology*
  • Algorithms
  • Carbon Dioxide*
  • Droughts
  • Forests
  • Global Warming*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Trees* / metabolism
  • Trees* / physiology
  • United States


  • Carbon Dioxide

Associated data

  • figshare/10.6084/m9.figshare.8805110