SparcS Center


Interannual climate variability and tropical tree cover

Holmgren, M., M. Hirota, E. H. Van Nes, and M. Scheffer. 2013. Effects of interannual climate variability on tropical tree cover. Nature Climate Change 3:755-758. [full text]




Climatic warming is substantially intensifying the global water cycle and is projected to increase rainfall variability. Using satellite data, we show that higher climatic variability is
associated with reduced tree cover in the wet tropics globally. In contrast, interannual variability in rainfall can have neutral or even positive effects on tree cover in the dry tropics. In South America, tree cover in dry lands is higher in areas with high year-to-year variability in rainfall. This is consistent with evidence from case studies suggesting that in these areas rare wet episodes are essential for opening windows of opportunity where massive tree recruitment can overwhelm disturbance effects, allowing the establishment of extensive woodlands. In Australia, wet extremes have similar effects, but the net effect of rainfall variability is overwhelmed by negative effects of extreme dry years. In Africa, effects of rainfall variability are neutral for dry lands. It is most likely that differences in herbivore communities and fire regimes contribute to regulating tree expansion during wet extremes. Our results illustrate that increasing climatic
variability may affect ecosystem services in contrasting, and sometimes surprising, ways. Expansion of dry tropical tree cover during extreme wet events may decrease grassland
productivity but enhance carbon sequestration, soil nutrient retention and biodiversity.

15 Aug 2013

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