Get access

Global patterns in the vulnerability of ecosystems to vegetation shifts due to climate change


Patrick Gonzalez, Center for Forestry, 163 Mulford Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-3114, USA.


Aim  Climate change threatens to shift vegetation, disrupting ecosystems and damaging human well-being. Field observations in boreal, temperate and tropical ecosystems have detected biome changes in the 20th century, yet a lack of spatial data on vulnerability hinders organizations that manage natural resources from identifying priority areas for adaptation measures. We explore potential methods to identify areas vulnerable to vegetation shifts and potential refugia.

Location  Global vegetation biomes.

Methods  We examined nine combinations of three sets of potential indicators of the vulnerability of ecosystems to biome change: (1) observed changes of 20th-century climate, (2) projected 21st-century vegetation changes using the MC1 dynamic global vegetation model under three Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emissions scenarios, and (3) overlap of results from (1) and (2). Estimating probability density functions for climate observations and confidence levels for vegetation projections, we classified areas into vulnerability classes based on IPCC treatment of uncertainty.

Results  One-tenth to one-half of global land may be highly (confidence 0.80–0.95) to very highly (confidence ≥ 0.95) vulnerable. Temperate mixed forest, boreal conifer and tundra and alpine biomes show the highest vulnerability, often due to potential changes in wildfire. Tropical evergreen broadleaf forest and desert biomes show the lowest vulnerability.

Main conclusions  Spatial analyses of observed climate and projected vegetation indicate widespread vulnerability of ecosystems to biome change. A mismatch between vulnerability patterns and the geographic priorities of natural resource organizations suggests the need to adapt management plans. Approximately a billion people live in the areas classified as vulnerable.