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University of Basel

The Impact of Climate Change on Drylands

cold-desert in Wyoming USA
Cold arid sagebrush steppe in Wyoming: the temperate drylands of the western USA are home to the greater sage grouse. This species of bird is on the Red List of Threatened Species as its habitat is shrinking. (Photo: Daniel Schlaepfer)

In the future, the area covered by temperate drylands will shrink in favor of subtropical drylands. Rising temperatures are increasingly drying out deeper layers of soil in the remaining temperate drylands – with significant repercussions for plant life. Researchers from the University of Basel have reported these findings in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

31 January 2017

cold-desert in Wyoming USA
Cold arid sagebrush steppe in Wyoming: the temperate drylands of the western USA are home to the greater sage grouse. This species of bird is on the Red List of Threatened Species as its habitat is shrinking. (Photo: Daniel Schlaepfer)

Around 40 percent of the Earth’s surface is made up of drylands. These are subdivided into subtropical (the Sahara, Australia’s outback) and temperate zones (Central Asian steppes, the western USA, parts of the Mediterranean region). Forecasts suggest that climate change could further increase aridity in these areas and lead to even greater strain on water resources. However, existing models vary considerably in their projections depending on geographical location and the type of drylands.

Now, researchers in Basel (Switzerland) have obtained new findings on the effects of climate change on temperate drylands. In order to accomplish this, they used a simulation model that takes account of the soil moisture and the complex factors that influence it.

The environmental scientists combined climate projections from 16 global models with location-specific information on vegetation and soil properties. Their results show that the current extent of temperate drylands could shrink by up to 30 percent by the end of the 21st century. The lost area would primarily convert into subtropical drylands. Overall, however, climate projections clearly point to a global increase in the area of drylands.

Ecological drought puts strain on plants

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