Land-use change outweighs projected effects of changing rainfall on tree cover in sub-Saharan Africa

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Abstract

Global change will likely affect savanna and forest structure and distributions, with implications for diversity within both biomes. Few studies have examined the impacts of both expected precipitation and land use changes on vegetation structure in the future, despite their likely severity. Here, we modeled tree cover in sub-Saharan Africa, as a proxy for vegetation structure and land cover change, using climatic, edaphic, and anthropic data (R2 = 0.97). Projected tree cover for the year 2070, simulated using scenarios that include climate and land use projections, generally decreased, both in forest and savanna, although the directionality of changes varied locally. The main driver of tree cover changes was land use change; the effects of precipitation change were minor by comparison. Interestingly, carbon emissions mitigation via increasing biofuels production resulted in decreases in tree cover, more severe than scenarios with more intense precipitation change, especially within savannas. Evaluation of tree cover change against protected area extent at the WWF Ecoregion scale suggested areas of high biodiversity and ecosystem services concern. Those forests most vulnerable to large decreases in tree cover were also highly protected, potentially buffering the effects of global change. Meanwhile, savannas, especially where they immediately bordered forests (e.g. West and Central Africa), were characterized by a dearth of protected areas, making them highly vulnerable. Savanna must become an explicit policy priority in the face of climate and land use change if conservation and livelihoods are to remain viable into the next century.

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