Climatic Change

, Volume 109, Issue 3, pp 437-452

First online:

Pan evaporation and wind run decline in the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa (1974–2005): implications for vegetation responses to climate change

  • M. Timm HoffmanAffiliated withBotany Department, University of Cape Town Email author 
  • , Michael D. CramerAffiliated withBotany Department, University of Cape Town
  • , Lindsey GillsonAffiliated withBotany Department, University of Cape Town
  • , Michael WallaceAffiliated withSpatial Analysis Unit, Institute for Resource Utilisation, Western Cape Department of Agriculture

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In many regions of the world, increasing temperatures in recent decades are paradoxically associated with declining pan evaporation, but evidence is sparse for this trend from the southern hemisphere in general and sub-Saharan Africa in particular. In this study, we examined changes in pan evaporation and four other meteorological variables (rainfall, wind run, temperature and vapour pressure deficit) at 20 climate stations in the predominantly winter-rainfall Cape Floristic Region (CFR) of South Africa over the period 1974–2005. Our results show that pan evaporation has declined significantly at 16 climate stations at an average rate of 9.1 mm a − 2 while wind run has declined significantly at all climate stations by more than 25% over the study period. Annual rainfall has not changed significantly at any of the climate stations while maximum temperature has increased significantly at all but one climate station at an average rate of 0.03°C a. − 1 over the study period. The trends in vapour pressure deficit are mixed and no clear regional pattern is evident. Our results raise important questions about the predicted catastrophic impact that the projected changes in twenty-first century climates will have on the rich flora of the region. If evaporative demand has declined over the last 30 years in the Cape Floristic Region then it is possible that more water has become available for plant growth, infiltration and runoff despite the widespread increase in temperature. However, decreased pan evaporation and wind run combined with increased temperatures could potentially reduce transpiration and exacerbate heat stress of plants on increasingly frequent hot and windless days during the summer drought. Contrary to other predictions for the area, it is also likely that the changing conditions will decrease the frequency and/or intensity of fires which are an important component of the ecology of the fire-adapted CFR. Consideration of other factors besides changes in temperature and rainfall are essential in debates on the impact of climate change on the vegetation of this region.