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Biocrusts mediate a new mechanism for land degradation under a changing climate


Global concerns for desertification have focused on the slow recovery of extensive and expanding drylands following disturbance, which may be exacerbated by climate change. Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) are photosynthetic soil communities found in drylands worldwide, which are central to the stability and resilience of dryland ecosystems, but vulnerable to global change. Here we use multiple decade-long experiments to investigate the consequences of climate and land-use change on biocrusts and soil stability. Biocrusts recovered rapidly under ambient temperatures but warming interacted with the precipitation disturbance to halt recovery. Moreover, warming alone caused losses of mosses, lichens and soil stability. Our results present a new mechanism contributing to land degradation in drylands whereby warming drives a state shift in biocrust communities, which degrades soil stability. The synergistic effects of climate and land-use change co-occur globally and our results support projections of increased desertification and lowered dryland resilience under warming.

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Fig. 1: Biocrust community composition, abundance and effects on soil aggregate stability.
Fig. 2: Biocrust recovery varies by disturbance type and functional group.
Fig. 3: Moss shows no signs of recovery under warming.

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Data availability

Data generated during this study is available from the USGS ScienceBase-Catalog67.

Code availability

Code created for this study is available from the USGS ScienceBase-Catalog67.


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We are indebted to the many field technicians that helped with the project, E. Grote for plot instrumentation and quality control, E. Geiger for research station leadership and C. Collins and T. Bohner for help with statistical analyses. We also thank M. Van Scoyoc, T. Fisk, J. Jew, L. Wilkolak, the National Park Service Southeast Utah Group and the Bureau of Land Management Canyon Country District Office for expert assistance with permits and logistics. Any use of trade, firm or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US government. Funding: this research was supported by the Office of Science (Office of Biological and Environmental Research) US Department of Energy Terrestrial Ecosystem Science programme (J.B. and S.C.R), the US Geological Survey and a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (award ID 2109655; M.L.P.).

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Authors and Affiliations



J.B. acquired financial support and established the field projects. S.C.R. acquired financial support and provided overall direction of the field operation. A.H. and C.M.L. collected biocrust community data in the field and maintained the climate manipulation experiment. M.L.P. and B.E.M. analysed the data. M.L.P acquired financial support and wrote the initial draft of the manuscript. All authors contributed to the synthesis of data and the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to M. L. Phillips.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Paolo D’Odorico, Miguel Berdugo and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Phillips, M.L., McNellis, B.E., Howell, A. et al. Biocrusts mediate a new mechanism for land degradation under a changing climate. Nat. Clim. Chang. 12, 71–76 (2022).

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