DOI: 10.1029/2023pa004685 ISSN:

High Productivity at High Latitudes? Photosynthesis and Leaf Ecophysiology in Arctic Forests of the Eocene

Wilfried Konrad, Anita Roth‐Nebelsick, Christopher Traiser
  • Paleontology
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Oceanography


The Arctic forests of the Eocene, which thrived under elevated CO2, a temperate climate, high precipitation and annually extremely different daylengths, represent a quite spectacular no‐analogue habitat of Earth's greenhouse past. The aim of this study was to improve our understanding of the ecophysiology of Arctic broad‐leaved deciduous forests of the Eocene, by analyzing leaf photosynthesis and tree productivity based on gas exchange modeling for two fossil Eocene sites, Svalbard and Ellesmere Island. For this, a single‐leaf photosynthesis model that includes heat transfer and leaf senescence was derived. Environmental conditions were based on available palaeoclimate data and a CO2 level of 800 μmol/mol. Additionally, different light regimes (diffusivity and transmissivity) were considered. With this model, annual photosynthesis was calculated on the basis of annual temperature and day lengths (derived by celestial mechanics). To obtain productivity of a whole deciduous broad‐leaved tree, the single leaf data were then upscaled by a canopy model. The results indicate that productivity was enhanced at both high latitude sites by elevated CO2, temperature of the growing season and high maximum daylength (24 hr) during late spring and early summer. With productivity values about 30%–60% higher as for a mid‐latitude continental European forest, the results indicate a potential for high productivity at the Eocene polar sites which is in the range of extant tropical forests. In contrast to speculations, no evidence for a selective advantage of large leaf size—as shown by various fossil leaves from high latitude sites—could be found.

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