Articles | Volume 5, issue 3
03 Jul 2009
 | 03 Jul 2009

Ecosystem effects of CO2 concentration: evidence from past climates

I. C. Prentice and S. P. Harrison

Abstract. Atmospheric CO2 concentration has varied from minima of 170–200 ppm in glacials to maxima of 280–300 ppm in the recent interglacials. Photosynthesis by C3 plants is highly sensitive to CO2 concentration variations in this range. Physiological consequences of the CO2 changes should therefore be discernible in palaeodata. Several lines of evidence support this expectation. Reduced terrestrial carbon storage during glacials, indicated by the shift in stable isotope composition of dissolved inorganic carbon in the ocean, cannot be explained by climate or sea-level changes. It is however consistent with predictions of current process-based models that propagate known physiological CO2 effects into net primary production at the ecosystem scale. Restricted forest cover during glacial periods, indicated by pollen assemblages dominated by non-arboreal taxa, cannot be reproduced accurately by palaeoclimate models unless CO2 effects on C3-C4 plant competition are also modelled. It follows that methods to reconstruct climate from palaeodata should account for CO2 concentration changes. When they do so, they yield results more consistent with palaeoclimate models. In conclusion, the palaeorecord of the Late Quaternary, interpreted with the help of climate and ecosystem models, provides evidence that CO2 effects at the ecosystem scale are neither trivial nor transient.