Committed terrestrial ecosystem changes due to climate change

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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.

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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.


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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

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.

Correspondence to Chris Jones.

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