The climatic sensitivity of the forest, savanna and forest–savanna transition in tropical South America


Author for correspondence:
Marina Hirota
Tel: +55 12 3186 9521


  • We used a climate–vegetation–natural fire (CVNF) conceptual model to evaluate the sensitivity and vulnerability of forest, savanna, and the forest–savanna transition to environmental changes in tropical South America.
  • Initially, under current environmental conditions, CVNF model results suggested that, in the absence of fires, tropical forests would extend c. 200 km into the presently observed savanna domain.
  • Environmental changes were then imposed upon the model in temperature, precipitation and lightning strikes. These changes ranged from 2 to 6°C warming, +10 to −20% precipitation change and 0 to 15% increase in lightning frequency, which, in aggregate form, represent expected future climatic changes in response to global warming and deforestation.
  • The most critical vegetation changes are projected to take place over the easternmost portions of the basin, with a widening of the forest–savanna transition. The transition width would increase from 150 to c. 300 km, with tree cover losses ranging from 20 to 85%. This means that c. 6% of the areas currently covered by forests could potentially turn into grass-dominated savanna landscapes. The mechanism driving tree cover reduction consists of the combination of less favorable climate conditions for trees and more fire activity. In addition, this sensitivity analysis predicts that the current dry shrubland vegetation of northeast Brazil could potentially turn into a bare soil landscape.