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Dryland mechanisms could widely control ecosystem functioning in a drier and warmer world

Abstract

Responses of terrestrial ecosystems to climate change have been explored in many regions worldwide. While continued drying and warming may alter process rates and deteriorate the state and performance of ecosystems, it could also lead to more fundamental changes in the mechanisms governing ecosystem functioning. Here we argue that climate change will induce unprecedented shifts in these mechanisms in historically wetter climatic zones, towards mechanisms currently prevalent in dry regions, which we refer to as ‘dryland mechanisms’. We discuss 12 dryland mechanisms affecting multiple processes of ecosystem functioning, including vegetation development, water flow, energy budget, carbon and nutrient cycling, plant production and organic matter decomposition. We then examine mostly rare examples of the operation of these mechanisms in non-dryland regions where they have been considered irrelevant at present. Current and future climate trends could force microclimatic conditions across thresholds and lead to the emergence of dryland mechanisms and their increasing control over ecosystem functioning in many biomes on Earth.

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Acknowledgements

We thank S. Feng and Q. Fu for sharing their P/PET data, T. Chapin and C. Körner for critically reviewing the paper, and L. Bigio and N. Kasher for assistance with and creation of the figures. This article profited greatly from discussions with I. Janssens, I. Nijs, S. Vicca, Y. Mau and R. Wallach. The basic idea for this Perspective was developed during a symposium at the 13th European Ecological Federation conference and was further developed as part of the ClimMani COST Action ES1308 activities. The support of the Israel Science Foundation is acknowledged by J.M.G. (grant number 1796/19), O.A. (1185/17) and E.M. (1053/17). M.B. acknowledges funding through the ÖAW-ESS project ClimGrassHydro (Austrian Academy of Sciences).

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J.M.G. conceptualized this Perspective, informed by discussions with H.J.D.B., A.R., M.J.S., M.B. and H.L.T. M.J.S. produced the NDVI and soil moisture maps. O.A. downloaded and analysed the climate model data. D.H. and Y.M. produced and analysed the soil water potential data. O.A., D.H. and Y.M. generated the temperature and soil water potential panels. G.D. and O.F. (Box 1) and E.M. and O.T. (Box 2) performed model analyses of the dryland mechanisms and produced the Box figures. J.M.G. drafted the manuscript, and H.J.D.B., A.R., M.J.S., O.A., M.B., J.B., G.D., S.C.D., D.G., D.H., K.R.H., L.L., E.M., E.S., H.L.T. and D.Y. contributed discussions to different draft versions. All authors gave their final approval for submission.

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Correspondence to José M. Grünzweig.

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Nature Ecology & Evolution thanks Joshua Schimel, Susana Bautista and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Discussion, Methods, Tables 1–5, Figs. 1–5 and References.

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Grünzweig, J.M., De Boeck, H.J., Rey, A. et al. Dryland mechanisms could widely control ecosystem functioning in a drier and warmer world. Nat Ecol Evol 6, 1064–1076 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-022-01779-y

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