Date of this Version
Oecologia (2014) 175:699–711
Future ecosystem properties of grasslands will be driven largely by belowground biomass responses to climate change, which are challenging to understand due to experimental and technical constraints. We used a multi-faceted approach to explore single and combined impacts of elevated CO2 and warming on root carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) dynamics in a temperate, semiarid, native grassland at the Prairie Heating and CO2 Enrichment experiment. To investigate the indirect, moisture mediated effects of elevated CO2, we included an irrigation treatment. We assessed root standing mass, morphology, residence time and seasonal appearance/disappearance of community-aggregated roots, as well as mass and N losses during decomposition of two dominant grass species (a C3 and a C4). In contrast to what is common in mesic grasslands, greater root standing mass under elevated CO2 resulted from increased production, unmatched by disappearance. Elevated CO2 plus warming produced roots that were longer, thinner and had greater surface area, which, together with greater standing biomass, could potentially alter root function and dynamics. Decomposition increased under environmental conditions generated by elevated CO2, but not those generated by warming, likely due to soil desiccation with warming. Elevated CO2, particularly under warming, slowed N release from C4—but not C3—roots, and consequently could indirectly affect N availability through treatment effects on species composition. Elevated CO2 and warming effects on root morphology and decomposition could offset increased C inputs from greater root biomass, thereby limiting future net C accrual in this semiarid grassland.