Winners and losers—climate change will shift vegetation

February 20, 2017, Umea University

Projected global warming will likely decrease the extent of temperate drylands by a third over the remainder of the 21st century coupled with an increase in dry deep soil conditions during agricultural growing season. These results have been presented in Nature Communications by an international collaboration led by the US Geological Survey and members from seven countries, including Scott Wilson at the Climate Impacts Research Centre (CIRC) at Umeå University in Sweden.

"I was impressed by the scope of the computer model: with many components of the water cycle calculated daily for 30 years, at 20,000 sites. All of this to simulate the current climate as well as 16 possible future climates. The variety of possible future climates gave pretty consistent outcomes, lending credibility to the results," says Professor Scott Wilson, visiting researcher at Umeå University and researcher within CIRC.

Dryland habitats expanded by 4–8% in the 20th century and now cover 40% of the global terrestrial surface. As the global climate warms this expansion will likely continue. Forecasting the changes in precipitation and for tropical and subtropical regions as a result of is well constrained due to soil moisture patterns being closely linked to Hadley Circulations.

However, until recently, much uncertainty still existed concerning temperate drylands. The certainty of the forecasts is particularly important as warming leads to shifts from temperate to subtropical drylands, which leads to changes in precipitation and soil moisture, which in turn has profound effects on ecological services, provided to humanity, including the viability of certain temperate agricultural systems.

This uncertainty is changing because of improved supercomputer modelling of the movement of water through ecosystems, based on 20,000 locations around the world.

The results suggest that climate change will convert much of the area currently occupied by temperate grasslands and deserts to subtropical vegetation with effects on associated wildlife and human populations.

Specifically, these results predict a loss of 15 to 30 per cent of temperate grasslands by the end of the century with a substantial increase in deep soil drought conditions. The impacts can have large consequences for humanity.

"For example, with the expansion of subtropical drylands as temperate drylands warm cool season crops such as wheat and potato would no longer be economically viable," says Scott Wilson. "Further, these subtropical drylands are home to aggressive diseases such as dengue and schistosomiasis. Given the predicted changes to dryland habitats globally, the outcome of this research is essential for developing strategies for adaptation by policy makers."

Explore further: International research finds aridity will impact carbon storage, plant productivity

More information: Daniel R. Schlaepfer et al. Climate change reduces extent of temperate drylands and intensifies drought in deep soils, Nature Communications (2017). DOI: 10.1038/ncomms14196

Related Stories

Subtropical Cornwall climate could mean exotic new crops

July 11, 2016

The subtropical weather in Cornwall means new exotic crops such as quinoa and Japanese persimmon are now more likely to succeed, according to a new technique developed by University of Exeter experts to monitor the climate.

Increasing aridity reduces microbial diversity

December 9, 2015

A new study drawn from more than 80 dryland sites across the world indicates that increasing aridity reduces abundance and diversity of microbial communities which carry out for most of ecosystem services such as primary ...

Recommended for you

Nanoscale Lamb wave-driven motors in nonliquid environments

March 19, 2019

Light driven movement is challenging in nonliquid environments as micro-sized objects can experience strong dry adhesion to contact surfaces and resist movement. In a recent study, Jinsheng Lu and co-workers at the College ...

OSIRIS-REx reveals asteroid Bennu has big surprises

March 19, 2019

A NASA spacecraft that will return a sample of a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu to Earth in 2023 made the first-ever close-up observations of particle plumes erupting from an asteroid's surface. Bennu also revealed itself ...

The powerful meteor that no one saw (except satellites)

March 19, 2019

At precisely 11:48 am on December 18, 2018, a large space rock heading straight for Earth at a speed of 19 miles per second exploded into a vast ball of fire as it entered the atmosphere, 15.9 miles above the Bering Sea.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Feb 22, 2017
I was impressed by the scope of the computer model

Here we go again, another model that can't predict.

Dryland habitats expanded by 4–8% in the 20th century and now cover 40% of the global terrestrial surface. As the global climate warms this expansion will likely continue.

Please, explain what drove the 20th Century changes? This article just leads the reader to assume it must be AGW that caused it.

That would be wrong. Land use has been, and remains, the largest driver by far in these changes. Don't believe me, then drill through the multiple layers of papers referenced by this article for dryland changes and go back to the original sources papers. (this is several layers deep, I warn you now).

In fact, some argue that land use drives climate changes much more than CO2 ever could.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.