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Understanding how net ecosystem exchange (NEE) changes with temperature is central to the debate on climate change-carbon cycle feedbacks, but still remains unclear. Here, we used eddy covariance measurements of NEE from 20 FLUXNET sites (203 site-years of data) in mid- and high-latitude forests to investigate the temperature response of NEE. Years were divided into two half thermal years (increasing temperature in spring and decreasing temperature in autumn) using the maximum daily mean temperature. We observed a parabolic-like pattern of NEE in response to temperature change in both the spring and autumn half thermal years. However, at similar temperatures, NEE was considerably depressed during the decreasing temperature season as compared with the increasing temperature season, inducing a counter-clockwise hysteresis pattern in the NEE–temperature relation at most sites. The magnitude of this hysteresis was attributable mostly (68%) to gross primary production (GPP) differences but little (8%) to ecosystem respiration (ER) differences between the two half thermal years. The main environmental factors contributing to the hysteresis responses of NEE and GPP were daily accumulated radiation. Soil water content (SWC) also contributed to the hysteresis response of GPP but only at some sites. Shorter day length, lower light intensity, lower SWC and reduced photosynthetic capacity may all have contributed to the depressed GPP and net carbon uptake during the decreasing temperature seasons. The resultant hysteresis loop is an important indicator of the existence of limiting factors. As such, the role of radiation, LAI and SWC should be considered when modeling the dynamics of carbon cycling in response to temperature change.