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Oecologia. 2005 Nov;146(1):130-47. Epub 2005 Oct 22.

Climatic influences on net ecosystem CO2 exchange during the transition from wintertime carbon source to springtime carbon sink in a high-elevation, subalpine forest.

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  • 1Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, 80309-0334, USA.


The transition between wintertime net carbon loss and springtime net carbon assimilation has an important role in controlling the annual rate of carbon uptake in coniferous forest ecosystems. We studied the contributions of springtime carbon assimilation to the total annual rate of carbon uptake and the processes involved in the winter-to-spring transition across a range of scales from ecosystem CO2 fluxes to chloroplast photochemistry in a coniferous, subalpine forest. We observed numerous initiations and reversals in the recovery of photosynthetic CO2 uptake during the initial phase of springtime recovery in response to the passage of alternating warm- and cold-weather systems. Full recovery of ecosystem carbon uptake, whereby the 24-h cumulative sum of NEE (NEEdaily) was consistently negative, did not occur until 3-4 weeks after the first signs of photosynthetic recovery. A key event that preceded full recovery was the occurrence of isothermality in the vertical profile of snow temperature across the snow pack; thus, providing consistent daytime percolation of melted snow water through the snow pack. Interannual variation in the cumulative annual NEE (NEEannual) was mostly explained by variation in NEE during the snow-melt period (NEEsnow-melt), not variation in NEE during the snow-free part of the growing season (NEEsnow-free). NEEsnow-melt was highest in those years when the snow melt occurred later in the spring, leading us to conclude that in this ecosystem, years with earlier springs are characterized by lower rates of NEEannual, a conclusion that contrasts with those from past studies in deciduous forest ecosystems. Using studies on isolated branches we showed that the recovery of photosynthesis occurred through a series of coordinated physiological and biochemical events. Increasing air temperatures initiated recovery through the upregulation of PSII electron transport caused in part by disengagement of thermal energy dissipation by the carotenoid, zeaxanthin. The availability of liquid water permitted a slightly slower recovery phase involving increased stomatal conductance. The most rate-limiting step in the recovery process was an increase in the capacity for the needles to use intercellular CO2, presumably due to slow recovery of Rubisco activity. Interspecific differences were observed in the timing of photosynthetic recovery for the dominant tree species. The results of our study provide (1) a context for springtime CO2 uptake within the broader perspective of the annual carbon budget in this subalpine forest, and (2) a mechanistic explanation across a range of scales for the coupling between springtime climate and the carbon cycle of high-elevation coniferous forest ecosystems.

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