Climate change and grasslands through the ages: an overview


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    Climate reconstruction incorporates concurrent measurements from modern periods during which both instrumental and proxy indicators exist. Their relationship during the modern era (typically derived using statistical regression techniques) then is applied to proxy measurements from the past (when there were not instruments) to ‘hindcast’ climate.

L. ’t Mannetje, Eekhoornlaan 14, 6705CH Wageningen, The Netherlands.


Change from cool to warm temperatures and vice versa have occurred throughout geological time. During the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (206–65 million years ago, Ma) the climate was more uniformly warm and moist than at present and tropical rainforests were widespread. Grasses evolved during the Jurassic period and they expanded greatly as the climate differentiated with reduced rainfall and temperatures. C4-grasses probably arose during the Oligocene period (24–35 Ma). During the Miocene period (23·8–5·3 Ma) grasslands expanded into huge areas (e.g. prairies in the USA, steppe in Eurasia, and pampas and llanos in South America). During the Quaternary period (1·8 Ma till now) some twenty-two different ice ages with periodicities of about 100 000 years occurred. Eighteen-thousand years ago, north-western Europe had a polar climate with tundra vegetation and the Mediterranean region was covered by steppe. During that time Amazonia was so dry that it was covered in extensive areas of savanna and the Sahara expanded rapidly. Only in the last 10 000 years has a closed rainforest covered the Amazonian region again. However, 9000 years ago a brief period of global warming caused excessive rains, which caused the sea and river levels to rise in north-western Europe with tremendous loss of life. The present period of extreme dryness in the Sahara only started some 5000 years ago and then the desert expanded rapidly into the Sahel. Before that the Sahara was covered by steppe. Global warming took place between about ad 900 and about ad 1200 or 1300 just before the Little Ice Age (1550–1700 ad). The article concludes with a description of temperature and vegetation changes that are occurring in Europe at present. It is predicted that C4-grasses, which are already present in southern Europe, will further expand but that, in the short term, land abandonment will have much more deleterious effects than temperature change due to increased wild fires, loss of biodiversity and desertification.