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

John S. Sperry, Martin D. Venturas, Henry N. Todd, Anna T. Trugman, William R.L. Anderegg, Yujie Wang, Xiaonan Tai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

100 Scopus citations


The response of forests to climate change depends in part on whether the photosynthetic benefit from increased atmospheric CO2 (ΔCa = future minus historic CO2) compensates for increased physiological stresses from higher temperature (ΔT). 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 ΔCa and ΔT, where acclimated forests adjusted leaf area, photosynthetic capacity, and stand density to maximize productivity while avoiding stress. Without acclimation, the ΔCa-driven boost in net primary productivity (NPP) was compromised by ΔT-driven stress and mortality associated with vascular failure. With acclimation, the ΔCa-driven boost in NPP and stand biomass (C storage) was accentuated for cooler futures but negated for warmer futures by a ΔT-driven reduction in NPP and biomass. Thus, hotter futures reduced forest biomass through either mortality or acclimation. Forest outcomes depended on whether projected climatic ΔCa/ΔT ratios were above or below physiological thresholds that neutralized the negative impacts of warming. Critically, if forests do not acclimate, the ΔCa/ΔT 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 ΔCa/ΔT must rise above ca. 67 ppm·°C−1 for NPP and biomass to increase, a lower threshold met by 71% of projections.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)25734-25744
Number of pages11
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number51
StatePublished - Dec 17 2019
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Acclimation
  • Climate change
  • Drought
  • Forest resilience
  • Vegetation modeling


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