Human population growth offsets climate-driven increase in woody vegetation in sub-Saharan Africa

Martin Brandt, Kjeld Rasmussen, Josep Peñuelas, Feng Tian, Guy Schurgers, Aleixandre Verger, Ole Mertz, John R.B. Palmer, Rasmus Fensholt

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

    93 Citations (Scopus)

    Abstract

    © 2017 Macmillan Publishers Limited, part of Springer Nature. All rights reserved. The rapidly growing human population in sub-Saharan Africa generates increasing demand for agricultural land and forest products, which presumably leads to deforestation. Conversely, a greening of African drylands has been reported, but this has been difficult to associate with changes in woody vegetation. There is thus an incomplete understanding of how woody vegetation responds to socio-economic and environmental change. Here we used a passive microwave Earth observation data set to document two different trends in land area with woody cover for 1992-2011: 36% of the land area (6,870,000 km2) had an increase in woody cover largely in drylands, and 11% had a decrease (2,150,000 km2), mostly in humid zones. Increases in woody cover were associated with low population growth, and were driven by increases in CO2 in the humid zones and by increases in precipitation in drylands, whereas decreases in woody cover were associated with high population growth. The spatially distinct pattern of these opposing trends reflects, first, the natural response of vegetation to precipitation and atmospheric CO2, and second, deforestation in humid areas, minor in size but important for ecosystem services, such as biodiversity and carbon stocks. This nuanced picture of changes in woody cover challenges widely held views of a general and ongoing reduction of the woody vegetation in Africa.
    Original languageEnglish
    Article number0081
    JournalNature Ecology and Evolution
    Volume1
    Issue number4
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 6 Mar 2017

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