To evaluate the carbon budget of a boreal deciduous forest, we measured CO2 fluxes using the eddy covariance technique above an old aspen (OA) forest in Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1994 and 1996 as part of the Boreal Ecosystem-Atmosphere Study (BOREAS). We found that the OA forest is a strong carbon sink sequestering 200 ± 30 and 130 ± 30 g C m–2 y–1 in 1994 and 1996, respectively. These measurements were 16–45% lower than an inventory result that the mean carbon increment was about 240 g C m–2 y–1 between 1919 and 1994, mainly due to the advanced age of the stand at the time of eddy covariance measurements. Assuming these rates to be representative of Canadian boreal deciduous forests (area ≈ 3 × 105 km2), it is likely they can sequester 40–60 Tg C y–1, which is 2–3% of the missing global carbon sink.
The difference in carbon sequestration by the OA forest between 1994 and 1996 was mainly caused by the difference in leaf emergence date. The monthly mean air temperature during March–May 1994, was 4.8 °C higher than in 1996, resulting in leaf emergence being 18–24 days earlier in 1994 than 1996. The warm spring and early leaf emergence in 1994 enabled the aspen forest to exploit the long days and high solar irradiance of mid-to-late spring. In contrast, the 1996 OA growing season included only 32 days before the summer solstice. The earlier leaf emergence in 1994 resulted 16% more absorbed photosynthetically active radiation and a 90 g C m–2 y–1 increase in photosynthesis than 1996. The concomitant increase in respiration in the warmer year (1994) was only 20 g C m–2 y–1. These results show that an important control on carbon sequestration by boreal deciduous forests is spring temperature, via the influence of air temperature on the timing of leaf emergence.