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Global ecosystem thresholds driven by aridity

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Science  14 Feb 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6479, pp. 787-790
DOI: 10.1126/science.aay5958

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Thresholds of aridity

Increasing aridity due to climate change is expected to affect multiple ecosystem structural and functional attributes in global drylands, which cover ∼45% of the terrestrial globe. Berdugo et al. show that increasing aridity promotes thresholds on the structure and functioning of drylands (see the Perspective by Hirota and Oliveira). Their database includes 20 variables summarizing multiple aspects and levels of ecological organization. They found evidence for a series of abrupt ecological events occurring sequentially in three phases, culminating with a shift to low-cover ecosystems that are nutrient- and species-poor at high aridity values. They estimate that more than 20% of land surface will cross at least one of the thresholds by 2100, which can potentially lead to widespread land degradation and desertification worldwide.

Science, this issue p. 787; see also p. 739

Abstract

Aridity, which is increasing worldwide because of climate change, affects the structure and functioning of dryland ecosystems. Whether aridification leads to gradual (versus abrupt) and systemic (versus specific) ecosystem changes is largely unknown. We investigated how 20 structural and functional ecosystem attributes respond to aridity in global drylands. Aridification led to systemic and abrupt changes in multiple ecosystem attributes. These changes occurred sequentially in three phases characterized by abrupt decays in plant productivity, soil fertility, and plant cover and richness at aridity values of 0.54, 0.7, and 0.8, respectively. More than 20% of the terrestrial surface will cross one or several of these thresholds by 2100, which calls for immediate actions to minimize the negative impacts of aridification on essential ecosystem services for the more than 2 billion people living in drylands.

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