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Tree trumps grass to rule the savannas

28 June 2012 Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum

A new study published today in “Nature” by authors from the Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and the Goethe University Frankfurt suggests that large parts of Africa’s savannas may well be forests by 2100. The study suggests that fertilization by atmospheric carbon dioxide is forcing increases in tree cover throughout Africa. A switch from savanna to forest occurs once a critical threshold of CO2 concentration is exceeded, yet each site has its own critical threshold. The implication is that each savanna will switch at different points in time, thereby reducing the risk that a synchronous shock to the earth system will emanate from savannas.

Tropical grasslands, savannas and forests, areas the authors call the savanna complex, are expected to respond sensitively to climate and atmospheric changes. This is because the main players, grasses and trees, differ fundamentally in their response to temperature, carbon dioxide supply and fire and are in an unrelenting struggle for the dominance of the savanna complex. The outcome of this struggle determines whether vast portions of the globe’s tropical and sub-tropical regions are covered with grasslands, savannas or forests.  In the past such shifts in dominance have played out in slow motion, but the current wave of atmospheric changes has accelerated the potential rate of change. 

Experimental studies have generally shown that plants do not show a large response to CO2 fertilization.  “However, most of these studies were conducted in northern ecosystems or on commercially important species” explains Steven Higgins, lead author of the study from the Biodiodversity and Climate Reseach Centre and Goethe-University. “In fact, only one experimental study has investigated how savanna plants will respond to changing CO2 concentrations and this study showed that savanna trees were essentially CO2 starved under pre-industrial CO2 concentrations, and that their growth really starts taking off at the CO2 concentrations we are currently experiencing.“

The vegetation shifts that the Higgins and Scheiter study projects are an example of what some theorists call catastrophic regime shifts. Such catastrophic regime shifts can be triggered by small changes in the factors that regulate the system. These small changes set up a cascade of events that reinforce each other causing the system to change more and more rapidly. The study demonstrated that the savanna complex showed symptoms of catastrophic regime shifts.  “The potential for regime shifts in a vegetation formation that covers such vast areas is what is making earth system scientists turn their attention to savannas” comments Higgins. 

Knowing when such regime shifts will occur is critical for anticipating change. This study discovered that locations where the temperature rise associated with climate change occurs rapidly, for example in the center of southern Africa, are projected to switch later to forest as the high rate of temperature increase allows the savanna grasses to remain competitive for longer in the face of rising atmospheric CO2 concentration. This means that even though a single location may experience its catastrophic regime shift, the vegetation change when averaged over a region will be smoother. Such gradual transitions in regional vegetation patterns will reduce the potential for shocks to the earth system. “While this may seem reassuring, we have to bear in mind that these changes are still rapid when viewed on geological time scales”, says Higgins.

The practical implications of the study are far reaching. For example, the study identified a belt that spans northern central Africa where fire suppression would encourage savannas to transition to forests. “So if you wanted to sequester carbon as part of a carbon mitigation action, this is where you should do it” explained Higgins “with the caveat that where this will work is shifting as atmospheric conditions change.” A worrying implication is that the grasslands and open savannas of Africa, areas with unique floras and faunas, are set to be replaced by closed savannas  or forests.  Hence it appears that atmospheric change represents a major threat to systems that are already threatened by over-grazing, plantation forestry and crop production.

Attached files

  • African savanna: Global climate change is shifting the odds in favor of trees in contrast to grasses, with the consequence that large parts of Africa’s savannas may well be forests by 2100. Copyright: Steve Higgins

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