Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Committed terrestrial ecosystem changes due to climate change


Targets for stabilizing climate change are often based on considerations of the impacts of different levels of global warming, usually assessing the time of reaching a particular level of warming. However, some aspects of the Earth system, such as global mean temperatures1 and sea level rise due to thermal expansion2 or the melting of large ice sheets3, continue to respond long after the stabilization of radiative forcing. Here we use a coupled climate–vegetation model to show that in turn the terrestrial biosphere shows significant inertia in its response to climate change. We demonstrate that the global terrestrial biosphere can continue to change for decades after climate stabilization. We suggest that ecosystems can be committed to long-term change long before any response is observable: for example, we find that the risk of significant loss of forest cover in Amazonia rises rapidly for a global mean temperature rise above 2 C. We conclude that such committed ecosystem changes must be considered in the definition of dangerous climate change, and subsequent policy development to avoid it.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Dynamic and equilibrium Amazon forest extent throughout the simulations.
Figure 2: Geographical distribution of Amazon forest tree cover at 2050.
Figure 3: Dynamic and equilibrium boreal forest extent throughout the simulations.


  1. Hare, B. & Meinshausen, M. How much warming are we committed to and how much can be avoided? Clim. Change 75, 111–149 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Wigley, T. M. L. Global mean-temperature and sea level consequences of greenhouse gas concentration stabilisation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 22, 45–48 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Gregory, J. M. & Huybrechts, P. Ice-sheet contributions to future sea-level change. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 364, 1709–1731 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Cox, P. M. & Jones, C. D. Illuminating the modern dance of climate and CO2 . Science 321, 1642–1644 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Cox, P. M., Betts, R. A., Jones, C. D., Spall, S. A. & Totterdell, I. J. Acceleration of global warming due to carbon-cycle feedbacks in a coupled climate model. Nature 408, 184–187 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Friedlingstein, P. et al. Climate-carbon cycle feedback analysis, results from the C4MIP model intercomparison. J. Clim. 19, 3337–3353 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Jones, C. D., Cox, P. M. & Huntingford, C. in Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change (eds Schellnhuber, H. J., Cramer, W., Nakicenovic, N., Wigley, T. & Yohe, G.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Matthews, H. D. Decrease of emissions required to stabilize atmospheric CO2 due to positive carbon cycle-climate feedbacks. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L21707 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Sitch, S. et al. Evaluation of the terrestrial carbon cycle, future plant geography and climate-carbon cycle feedbacks using 5 Dynamic Global Vegetation Models (DGVMs). Glob. Change Biol. 14, 2015–2039 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Stern, N. Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Wigley, T. M. L. The climate change commitment. Science 307, 1766–1769 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Ridley, J. K., Huybrechts, P., Gregory, J. M. & Lowe, J. A. Elimination of the Greenland ice sheet in a high CO2 climate. J. Clim. 18, 3409–3427 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. IPCC. Contribution of Working Group II to the Second Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds Watson, R. T., Zinyowera, M. C. & Moss R. H.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996).

  14. Cox, P. M. et al. Amazonian forest dieback under climate-carbon cycle projections for the 21st century. Theor. Appl. Climatol. 78, 137–156 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Betts, R. A. et al. The role of ecosystem-atmosphere interactions in simulated Amazonian precipitation decrease and forest dieback under global climate warming. Theor. Appl. Climatol. 78, 157–175 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Scholze, M., Knorr, W., Arnell, N. W. & Prentice, I. C. A climate-change risk analysis for world ecosystems. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 13116–13120 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Salazar, L. F., Nobre, C. A. & Oyama, M. D. Climate change consequences on the biome distribution in tropical South America. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L09708 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Phillips, O. L. et al. Drought sensitivity of the Amazon rainforest. Science 323, 1344–1347 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Lowe, J. A. et al. How difficult is it to recover from dangerous levels of global warming? Environ. Res. Lett. 4, 014012 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Kohlmaier, G. H., Hager, C., Nadler, A., Wurth, G. & Ludeke, M. K. B. Global carbon dynamics of higher latitude forests during an anticipated climate change: Ecophysiological versus biome-migration view. Wat. Air Soil Pollut. 82, 455–464 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Joos, F. et al. Global warming feedbacks on terrestrial carbon uptake under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emissions scenarios. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 15, 891–907 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Ruckstuhl, K. E., Johnson, E. A. & Miyanishi, K. Introduction. The boreal forest and global change. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 363, 2243–2247 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Macdonald, G. M., Kremenetski, K. V. & Beilman, D. W. Climate change and the northern Russian treeline zone. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 363, 2283–2299 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Betts, R. A. et al. Future runoff changes due to climate and plant responses to increasing carbon dioxide. Nature 448, 1037–1041 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Harrison, S. P. & Prentice, I. C. Climate and CO2 controls on global vegetation distribution at the Last Glacial Maximum: Analysis based on palaeovegetation data, biome modelling and palaeoclimate simulations. Glob. Change Biol. 9, 983–1004 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Golding, N. & Betts, R. A. Fire risk in Amazonia due to climate change in the HadCM3 climate model: Potential interactions with deforestation. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 22, GB4007 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. European Council. Limiting Global Climate Change to 2 C—The Way Ahead for 2020 and Beyond Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions (2007).

  28. Jones, C. D. et al. Strong carbon cycle feedbacks in a climate model with interactive CO2 and sulphate aerosols. Geophys. Res. Lett. 30, 1479 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Jones, C. D. & Cox, P. M. Constraints on the temperature sensitivity of global soil respiration from the observed interannual variability in atmospheric CO2 . Atmos. Sci. Lett. 2, 166–172 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Nakićenović, N. et al. Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported by the Joint DECC, Defra and MoD Integrated Climate Programme—DECC/Defra (GA01101), MoD (CBC/2B/0417_Annex C5).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



C.J. experiment design, analysis, C.J. and J.L. analysis and text, S.L. carried out model simulations, R.B. advice on design, analysis and text.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Chris Jones.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 563 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Jones, C., Lowe, J., Liddicoat, S. et al. Committed terrestrial ecosystem changes due to climate change. Nature Geosci 2, 484–487 (2009).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing