Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, changing climates, nitrogen deposition and other aspects of anthropogenic global change are hypothesised to be changing forest productivity and biomass stocks in tropical forests and elsewhere (Clark 2004; Lewis, Malhi & Phillips 2004; Lewis et al. 2009a; Luo, 2007; Myeni et al. 1997). These hypotheses continue to be much debated, with contrary views on the plausibility of particular mechanisms and on the status of current evidence for or against them (Clark 2007; Friedlingstein et al. 2006; Holtum & Winter 2010; Körner 2009; Wright 2005, 2010). The influence of atmospheric and climate change on forest biomass is of particular interest because of the potential for positive or negative feedbacks. Increases in forest biomass and associated carbon pools would slow the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, producing a negative feedback, whereas decreases in forest biomass would have the opposite effect. Uncertainty surrounding these feedbacks is considerable at the global scale, with important implications for global carbon budgets (Luo 2007).
In view of this, it is essential to know whether forests are experiencing changes in productivity and biomass in excess of those typical for their age. Successional forests, those regrowing after disturbances, increase in biomass over time, with the trajectory and duration of this increase varying with forest type (Bormann & Likens 1979; Odum 1969). In the absence of global change, such forests are expected to eventually reach a dynamic equilibrium in which biomass gains from growth and recruitment are balanced by biomass losses from tree death and branchfall, and these old-growth forests thus experience no directional changes in biomass (Odum 1969; Yang, Luo & Finzi 2011). Accordingly, detection of directional changes in biomass in old-growth forests is generally considered evidence of global change influences. When and where such changes are detected, the next critical question concerns prediction of future net carbon fluxes and ultimate carbon stocks of such altered forests.