Climate change will cause abrupt shifts in Great Britain’s vegetation
The researchers combined high resolution images with climate models to investigate the potential impacts of two climate change scenarios across the country.
The study revealed that even gradual environmental changes could trigger abrupt shifts in the amount of vegetation in some places.
Professor Tim Lenton is the director of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute (GSI).
“We didn’t expect to see hundreds of localized abrupt shifts in the projections. Up to now, climate-driven abrupt shifts in vegetation have been rare in Great Britain,” explained Professor Lenton.
“Our results should not be taken as specific predictions of where abrupt ecosystem change will happen. But they serve to illustrate that it could happen across Great Britain in a changing climate.”
According to the study, most regions will experience an increase in vegetation as warmer and wetter conditions combine with higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and stimulate more plant growth.
In some places, however, warmer conditions may cause soil to dry out, which would reduce plant productivity and rapidly diminish vegetation.
Dr. Chris Boulton is an associate research fellow in the GSI.
“The general expected trend towards warmer, wetter weather is likely to cause an overall increase in vegetation in temperate places like Great Britain,” said Dr. Boulton.
“However, we wanted to find out whether even ‘smooth’ climate change might lead to abrupt shifts in vegetation.”
“A lot of research has focused on ‘tipping points’ in large systems like rainforests and oceans.
“Our study doesn’t predict abrupt shifts across the whole of Great Britain – 0.5-1.5% of the land area depending on the climate scenario – but it shows numerous shifts can happen on a localized level.”
The researchers used a new method of identifying abrupt shifts in vegetation to look for sudden changes in the total amount of carbon that is stored in it.
“We also find early warning signals before some of the abrupt shifts. This is good news as it shows the potential for being able to predict them in the real world,” said Dr Boulton.
The study is published in the journal Global Change Biology.