Changes in How Climate Forces the Vegetation of Southern Africa

Peer Reviewed
23 July 2023

Steven I. Higgins, Timo Conradi, Shasank Ongole, Jane Turpie, Joshua Weiss, Urs Eggli, Jasper A. Slingsby


Global climatic changes are altering ecosystem structure and functioning, yet detecting and forecasting such change is difficult. In this study, we use the concept of a phytoclime—a region where climate favours the growth of similar combinations of plant types—to examine how changes in climate forcing may impact on regional vegetation. We use species distribution data to estimate the parameters of a physiological plant growth model for 5006 vascular plant species common to southern Africa. Plant type suitability surfaces are calculated as the average climatic suitability of locations for all species belonging to a plant type. We calculated plant type suitability surfaces for ten different plant types. The resulting surfaces were used to produce a spatial classification of phytoclimes, which we interpret as regions that can climatically support particular plant type combinations. We use the phytoclime definitions and climatologies from five global circulation models (GCMs) simulating three shared economic pathways (SSPs) to forecast how the climatic forcing underlying the phytoclimes will change. Our analyses forecast that change in phytoclime state will be widespread throughout the region. There were, however, substantial differences in the timing of when changes would occur. The central interior of the region was forecast to change earlier than the arid west and southern coast. These differences in timing were driven by differences in the responses of trees, succulents, C3 and C4 grasses to the GCMs forecast aridification of the region’s central interior. Phytoclime modelling provides an indication of the potential of a region’s climate to support different plant types; it thereby provides forecasts of the potential impacts of climate change on regional vegetation structure and functioning.

EfD Authors
Sustainable Development Goals
Publication reference
Higgins, S. I., Conradi, T., Ongole, S., Turpie, J., Weiss, J., Eggli, U., & Slingsby, J. A. (2023). Changes in How Climate Forces the Vegetation of Southern Africa. Ecosystems, 26(8), 1716–1733.
Publication | 19 January 2024