Warming delays autumn declines in photosynthetic capacity in a boreal conifer, Norway spruce (Picea abies)

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Climate change, via warmer springs and autumns, may lengthen the carbon uptake period of boreal tree species, increasing the potential for carbon sequestration in boreal forests, which could help slow climate change. However, if other seasonal cues such as photoperiod dictate when photosynthetic capacity declines, warmer autumn temperatures may have little effect on when carbon uptake capacity decreases in these species. We investigated whether autumn warming would delay photosynthetic decline in Norway spruce (Picea abies (L.) H. Karst.) by growing seedlings under declining weekly photoperiods and weekly temperatures either at ambient temperature or a warming treatment 4 °C above ambient. Photosynthetic capacity was relatively constant in both treatments when weekly temperatures were >8 °C, but declined rapidly at lower temperatures, leading to a delay in the autumn decline in photosynthetic capacity in the warming treatment. The decline in photosynthetic capacity was not related to changes in leaf nitrogen or chlorophyll concentrations, but was correlated with a decrease in the apparent fraction of leaf nitrogen invested in Rubisco, implicating a shift in nitrogen allocation away from the Calvin cycle at low autumn growing temperatures. Our data suggest that as the climate warms, the period of net carbon uptake will be extended in the autumn for boreal forests dominated by Norway spruce, which could increase total carbon uptake in these forests.

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