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• Understanding controls over plant–atmosphere CO2 exchange is important for quantifying carbon budgets across a range of spatial and temporal scales. In this study, we used a simple approach to estimate whole-tree CO2 assimilation rate (ATree) in a subalpine forest ecosystem.
• We analysed the carbon isotope ratio (δ13C) of extracted needle sugars and combined it with the daytime leaf-to-air vapor pressure deficit to estimate tree water-use efficiency (WUE). The estimated WUE was then combined with observations of tree transpiration rate (E) using sap flow techniques to estimate ATree. Estimates of ATree for the three dominant tree species in the forest were combined with species distribution and tree size to estimate and gross primary productivity (GPP) using an ecosystem process model.
• A sensitivity analysis showed that estimates of ATree were more sensitive to dynamics in E than δ13C. At the ecosystem scale, the abundance of lodgepole pine trees influenced seasonal dynamics in GPP considerably more than Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir because of its greater sensitivity of E to seasonal climate variation.
• The results provide the framework for a nondestructive method for estimating whole-tree carbon assimilation rate and ecosystem GPP over daily-to weekly time scales.