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Changes in the potential distribution of humid tropical forests on a warmer planet

By Przemyslaw Zelazowski, Yadvinder Malhi, Chris Huntingford, Stephen Sitch and Joshua B. Fisher


The future of tropical forests has become one of the iconic issues in climate-change science. A number of studies that have explored this subject have tended to focus on the output from one or a few climate models, which work at low spatial resolution, whereas society and conservation-relevant assessment of potential impacts requires a finer scale. This study focuses on the role of climate on the current and future distribution of humid tropical forests (HTFs). We first characterize their contemporary climitalogical niche using annual rainfall and maximum climatological water stress, which also adequately describes the current distribution of other biomes within the tropics. As a first-order approximation of the potential extent of HTFs in future climate regimes defined by global warming of 2°C and 4°C, we investigate changes in the niche through a combination of climate-change anomaly patterns and higher resolution (5 km) maps of current climatology. The climate anomalies are derived using data from 17 coupled Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Models (AOGCMs) used in the Fourth Assessment of the Intergovenmental Panel for Climate Change. Our results confirm some risk of forest retreat, especially in eastern Amazonia, Central America and parts of Africa, but also indicate a potential for expansion in other regions, for example around the Congo Basin. The finer spatial scale enabled the depiction of potential resilient and vulnerable zones with practically useful detail. We further refine those estimates by considering the impact of new environmental regimes on plant water demand using the UK Met Office land-surface scheme (of the HadCM3 AOGCM). The CO₂-related reduction in plant water demand lowers the risk of die-back and can lead to possible niche expansion in many regions. The analysis presented here focuses primarily on hydrological determinants of HTF extent. We conclude by discussing the role of other factors, notably the physiological effects of higher temperature.The full-text of this article is not available in ORA, but you may be able to access the article via the publisher copy link on this record page

Topics: Environment, Environmental change, tropical forests, climate change, climate patterns, water stress, maximum climatological water deficit, carbon dioxide
Year: 2011
DOI identifier: 10.1098/rsta.2010.0238
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