High-Resolution Climatic Analysis and Southwest Biogeography

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Science  04 Apr 1986:
Vol. 232, Issue 4746, pp. 27-34
DOI: 10.1126/science.232.4746.27


Meteorologists and climatologists have produced significant new data on the fluid dynamics of the atmosphere, thus allowing biologists to examine more closely the cause-effect relation between the large-scale structure of the atmosphere and the dominant patterns of global biogeography. The inability to characterize the high-frequency variability of the weather has constrained such efforts. A method that allows year-to-year patterns of weather variability to be characterized in the contexts of global warming and cooling trends is applied in a combined analysis of long-term monthly weather records and data from an ecological monitoring project in southern New Mexico. The analysis suggests a cause-effect hypothesis of recent desertification in the North American Southwest. The links between the atmosphere and the biosphere are based on the fundamentally different responses to specific weather regimes of semidesert grasses with a C4 photosynthetic pathway and desert shrubs with a C3 photosynthetic pathway. The hypothesis appears to be of sufficient generality to explain the complex, but well-documented, floristic changes that have occurred in the same region since the last glacial maximum.