Climate change will increase savannas at the expense of forests and treeless vegetation in tropical and subtropical Americas
Transition areas between biomes are particularly sensitive to environmental changes. Our understanding of the impacts of ongoing climate change on terrestrial ecosystems has significantly increased during the last years. However, it is largely unknown how climatic change will affect transitions among major vegetation types.
We modelled the distribution of three alternative states (forest, savanna and treeless areas) in the tropical and subtropical Americas by means of climate-niche modelling. We studied how such distribution will change by the year 2070 by using 17 downscaled and calibrated global climate models from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 and the latest scenarios provided by the 5th Assessment Report of the IPCC.
Our results support the savannization of the tropical and subtropical Americas because of climate change, with an increase in savannas mainly at the expense of forests.
Our models predict an important geographical shift in the current distribution of transition areas between forest and savannas, which is much less pronounced in the case of those between savannas and treeless areas. Largest shifts, up to 600 km northward, are predicted in the forest–savanna transitions located in the eastern Amazon.
Our findings indicate that climate change will promote a shift towards more unstable states: the extent of the transition areas will notably increase, and largely stable forest areas are predicted to shrink dramatically.
Synthesis. Our work explores dimensions of the impact of climate change on biomes that have received little attention so far. Our results indicate that climate change will not only affect the extent of savanna, forest and treeless areas in the tropical and subtropical Americas, but also will: (i) promote a significant geographical shift and an increase of the extent of transition areas between biomes and (ii) decrease the stability of the equilibrium between forest, savanna and treeless areas, yielding a more unpredictable system.