Climatic and non-climatic vegetation cover changes in the rangelands of Africa

By Francesco D’Adamo et al.

Highlights

  • We present a 30+ years continental-scale assessment of African rangeland dynamics.
  • Vegetation was controlled by non-climatic drivers in ca. 26.5% of African rangelands.
  • Most rangelands greened up following a significant increase in woody vegetation.
  • We oppose that greening improves livelihoods as woody plants reduce palatability.
  • Angola and Mozambique showed a potential increase in forage despite browning.

Abstract

About 21% of the African population directly depends on rangeland resources. As this number is predicted to grow, it is important to understand the response of African rangelands to global environmental change and formulate, in turn, better hypotheses on their capacity to support livelihoods. Here we used three decades of satellite data and a dynamic global vegetation model to study the response of rangeland vegetation to recent climate change and to describe changes in the vegetation structure accompanying greening and browning trends. Long-term climate change was the dominant driver of vegetation dynamics in ca. 2,495,000 km2 of African rangelands (22.7% of the total extent). Examples of these rangelands are in Mauritania, Senegal, Chad, Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa, where the vegetation greened up due to an overall increase in trees, shrubs, and short herbaceous vegetation. We further identified a more extended different type of rangeland (ca. 2,915,000 km2) where vegetation dynamics appeared to be largely unrelated to long-term climate variations. In these rangelands, we observed opposite trends between woody cover (trees and shrubs) and short vegetation (mostly representative of the herbaceous layer). Greening (West Africa, South Sudan) was associated with an overall increase in woody cover (+4.4%) and a concomitant decline in short vegetation (−3.4%), while browning (Angola, Mozambique) resulted from a decrease in woody cover (−2.6%) and an increase in short vegetation (+4.3%) (total per cent change average during 1982–2015). Our results offer a nuanced perspective to frame greening and browning trends in rangeland systems. While greening may mitigate climate change via higher carbon uptake, the encroachment of less palatable woody species reduces the resources available to pastoral communities. On the other hand, browning due to a reduction in the woody cover attenuates carbon sequestration rates, but the observed increase in short herbaceous vegetation may hint a relative increase in forage resources.

This article appeared on the Global and Planetary Change website at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0921818121001016