Environment

Spread of woody plants highlights far-reaching impacts of climate change

Spread of woody plants highlig...
A new study has found that tree and shrub coverage is on the up in the world's savannas and tundras
A new study has found that tree and shrub coverage is on the up in the world's savannas and tundras
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A new study has found that tree and shrub coverage is on the up in the world's savannas and tundras
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A new study has found that tree and shrub coverage is on the up in the world's savannas and tundras

As the climate continues to warm it is changing the natural environment in all kinds of ways, from "death events" on the Great Barrier Reef to the growth of vegetation in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. A massive study has now revealed global warming is also prompting the spread of wooded plant coverage on the world's savannas and tundras, which spells bad news for the environment.

The research was led by scientists at the University of Edinburgh and is described as the "largest global woody cover change study of its kind to date." It involved looking at more than 1,000 records of woody plant cover from 899 sites in six different continents, along with temperature and rainfall data, to ascertain how climate change is driving shifts in the landscape. This analysis also accounted for the role wildfire and animal grazing patterns play in these transformations.

According to the team, the Arctic tundra that stretches across Canada, the US, Greenland, Europe and Russia, features 20 percent more shrub coverage than 50 years ago. Shrub and tree coverage in the world's savannas, which feature in Australia, the plains of Africa and in South America, increased by 30 percent in the same timeframe.

These savannas and tundras make up around 40 percent of the world's land mass. Because wooded plants store carbon, serve as fuel for fires and negatively affect how much of the sun's heat is reflected back into space, the scientists believe these profound changes to the landscapes could have a significant impact on the global climate and concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere.

On a more local level, the changes could influence the biodiversity in these regions, while expanding shrub coverage could cause soil temperatures to rise. This could have profound impacts on the permafrost that lies beneath the tundras, which contain huge amounts of carbon that would be released into the atmosphere were it to thaw.

"This research indicates the far-reaching effects of climate change across the planet," says Mariana García Criado from the University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences. "Uncovering the ways in which different landscapes are responding requires collaboration among scientists, and cooperation with local peoples to better understand the changes we’re seeing and their impacts from different perspectives."

The research was published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography.

Source: University of Edinburgh

17 comments
zr2s10
I can understand being concerned about the permafrost issues, but to say that more vegetation negatively impacts carbon in the air? Seems backwards. All my life I've been fed the notion that we need more vegetation to convert CO2 into Oxygen, so we need to save the rain forest. I think more vegetation in the savannas would be a good thing. Yes, it's a sign of a warmer climate overall. But, they shade the ground, which retains heat better, and then the plants will emit the heat back out at night better than the ground.
windykites
What a strangely pessimistic article. I thought trees were a good thing to have.
piperTom
The notion that expanded grow of trees and shrubs is "bad news for the environment" just reveals a certain mind-set: "all change is bad." Maybe it's "all change that can be traced to humans"? I don't agree; tree growth is good until proved otherwise. As for the conclusion that growth of trees and shrubs will make soil temperatures rise, there must be some really contorted logic there.
HighlanderJuan
Interesting. Yes, carbon is good, trees, shrubs, and bushes are good. Converting CO2 into O2 is good. To the extent that environmental monitors like universities can help us see what is happening is good. But then, government steps in and screws up the whole environment. Let's get government to stop the chemtrail sprays and the weather controls and let nature take over once again. We control freak humans don't have to control everything. Leave nature the hell alone.
bwana4swahili
"A massive study has now revealed global warming is also prompting the spread of wooded plant coverage on the world's savannas and tundras, which spells bad news for the environment." "bad news"!? Nonsense! It was climate change that cleared forests in the first place and even resulted in homo sapiens evolving to walk on two legs. Without climate change we wouldn't be around to complain about it!
Catweazle
This is supposed to be a bad thing? https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2016/carbon-dioxide-fertilization-greening-earth
Signguy
HighlanderJuan...well said! Control freaks...OUT!
Steve Dobbyns
Whilst the article states that the study accounted for wildfire, it has been shown that expansion of woody cover has more to do with the interruption to regular, low intensity indigenous burning regimes, the resultant impacts of infrequent, high intensity megafires, the subsequent impact on soil Nitrogen and resultant forest decline, eg in Australia (Jurskis, 2015) and North America.
akarp
I am confused by people who don't understand that humans are a part of nature. We, humans, are 'control freaks' because it's what allows our species to survive.
-dphiBbydt
New Atlas readers would do well to read the scholarly articles on grassland and forests from UC Davis. Here's one such article https://climatechange.ucdavis.edu/news/grasslands-more-reliable-carbon-sink-than-trees/ The research there states that grasslands are better carbon sinks because (summarizing) 'most of the sequestered carbon is stored underground whereas with trees the carbon is stored as wood bulk above ground' . And 'in fire events, the above ground carbon is more readily available to burn'. This 'has the effect of turning forests in to atmospheric carbon sources rather than sinks' Therefore 'grasslands are a better store because the sequestered carbon is less likely to burn under ground'. In Siberia (via TV documentary) there is an active effort to clone and reintroduce woolly mammoths(!) to counter the spread of forests replacing the tundra. Mammoths will make short work of woody trees is the thinking. I guess they are worried there, just like California, that trees will encourage fires - even in chilly Siberia.