Enhanced plant biomass accumulation in response to elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration could dampen the future rate of increase in CO2 levels and associated climate warming. However, it is unknown whether CO2-induced stimulation of plant growth and biomass accumulation will be sustained or whether limited nitrogen (N) availability constrains greater plant growth in a CO2-enriched world. Here we show, after a six-year field study of perennial grassland species grown under ambient and elevated levels of CO2 and N, that low availability of N progressively suppresses the positive response of plant biomass to elevated CO2. Initially, the stimulation of total plant biomass by elevated CO2 was no greater at enriched than at ambient N supply. After four to six years, however, elevated CO2 stimulated plant biomass much less under ambient than enriched N supply. This response was consistent with the temporally divergent effects of elevated CO2 on soil and plant N dynamics at differing levels of N supply. Our results indicate that variability in availability of soil N and deposition of atmospheric N are both likely to influence the response of plant biomass accumulation to elevated atmospheric CO2. Given that limitations to productivity resulting from the insufficient availability of N are widespread in both unmanaged and managed vegetation, soil N supply is probably an important constraint on global terrestrial responses to elevated CO2.
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