Abrupt concurrent changes in climate and vegetation can be dampened by the existence of a diverse plant ecosystem, concludes an article published this week in Nature Geoscience. The work suggests that the transition from grassland to desert at the end of the African Humid Period, about 4,000 years ago, was gradual as opposed to abrupt, in regions where plant species with a wide variety of moisture requirements thrived.
Martin Claussen and colleagues used a conceptual model that represents plant species according to their moisture requirements to study the impact of plant diversity on feedbacks between vegetation and climate. They find that even if some plant types are highly sensitive to changes in rainfall, the response of the entire vegetation system to climate change can be gradual if plant biodiversity is sufficiently high. They caution, however, that this resilience is fragile: the removal of specific plant types can lead to abrupt shifts in climate and vegetation.
“Perhaps understanding the climate impacts of plant biodiversity can also help with restoring vegetation in the Sahara”, says Stefan Dekker in an accompanying News and Views article.