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We measured the carbon isotopic composition (δ13C) of ecosystem respiration (δ13CR) in a subalpine forest across four growing seasons to examine whether patterns in δ13CR were consistent with those expected based on leaf‐level gas‐exchange theory, and in agreement with past studies of the relation between δ13CR and climate conducted across broad geographic regions. Conventional trends (i.e., less negative δ13CR with increased vapor pressure deficit (VPD) and air temperature (TAIR), and decreased soil moisture (θ)) were observed when we focused on the driest portions of average‐wetness years and when δ13CR was positively correlated with nighttime ecosystem respiration (RE). Nonconventional trends (i.e., more negative δ13CR with decreased θ , and increased VPD and TAIR) were observed under specific climatic conditions (e.g., late snowmelt; extreme TAIR late in the growing season), and when δ13CR was negatively correlated with RE. These nonconventional trends were independently corroborated using δ13C of extracted sugars from needles of dominant tree species at the site. Our results clearly demonstrate that the commonly reported relations between δ13CR and climate may break down depending on the interactions among environmental conditions. Efforts to model and predict the variability of δ13CR under changing climatic variables must characterize and parameterize the effects of unique combinations of weather conditions and variable hydrologic regimes, in combination with the susceptibility of photosynthetic isotope discrimination to extreme air temperatures.