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Climate change and ecosystem composition across large landscapes

Jennings, MichaelD., Harris, GrantM.
Landscape ecology 2017 v.32 no.1 pp. 195-207
bioclimate, bioclimatic indexes, botanical composition, climate change, climatic factors, climatic zones, ecosystems, landscapes, shrublands, steppes, Southwestern United States
CONTEXT: Climate change alters the vegetation composition and functioning of ecosystems. Measuring the magnitude, direction, and rate of changes in vegetation composition induced by climate remains a serious and unmet challenge. Such information is required for a predictive capability of how individual ecosystem will respond to future climates. OBJECTIVES: Our objectives were to identify the relationships between 20 climate variables and 39 ecosystems across the southwestern USA. We sought to understand the magnitude of relationships between variation in vegetation composition and bioclimatic variables as well as the amount of ecosystem area expected to be affected by future climate changes. METHODS: Bioclimatic variables best explaining the plant species composition of each ecosystem were identified. The strength of relationships between beta turnover and bioclimate gradients was calculated, the spatial concordance of ecosystem and bioclimate configurations was shown, and the area of suitable climate remaining within the boundaries of contemporary ecosystems under future climate projections was measured. RESULTS: Across the southwestern USA, four climate variables account for most of the climate related variation in vegetation composition. Twelve ecosystems are highly sensitive to climate change. By 2070, two ecosystems lose about 4000 (15 %) and 7000 (31 %) km² of suitable climate area within their current boundaries (the Western Great Plains Sandhill Steppe and Sonora-Mojave Creosotebush-White Bursage Desert Scrub ecosystems, respectively). The climatic areas of riparian ecosystems are expected to be reduced by half. CONCLUSIONS: Results provide specific climate and vegetation parameters for anticipating how, where and when ecosystem vegetation transforms with climate change. Projecting the loss of suitable climate for the vegetation composition of ecosystems is important for assessing ecosystem threats from climate change and for setting priorities for ecosystem conservation and restoration across the southwestern USA.