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Effects of Warming and Drought on the Vegetation and Plant Diversity in the Amazon Basin

Abstract

Climate change is strong in the Amazon basin. Climate models consistently predict widespread warmer and drier conditions by the end of the 21st century. As a consequence, water stress will increase throughout the region. We here review current understanding of the impact of climate change on forests’ distribution patterns, species diversity and ecosystem functioning of lowland rainforests in the Amazon basin. We reviewed 192 studies that provide empirical evidence, historical information and theoretical models. Over millions of years rainforests expansions and contractions have been accompanied by changes in the diversity and productivity of forests. In the future, drought will produce forest contractions along the forest edges and the savanna ecotone, causing an extensive savannization, particularly in the east. In terms of diversity, warming will reduce plant species survival by decreasing their productivity, but extinctions may also occur as a result of vegetation disequilibrium, as many plants, dispersal and pollinator species will fail to track changing climate; mild drought kills understory trees and severe drought may eliminate canopy trees as well. Severe droughts will thus produce directional changes in species composition, although these shifts may vary among forests on different soil types. In terms of ecosystem functioning, droughts will reduce root growth and standing biomass and may shift the Amazonian forest from being CO2 sinks to become CO2 sources. Physiological and ecological responses to warming and the feedback between vegetation and climate are still not completely understood. In particular, experimental assays that allow direct conclusions on the response of Amazonian plants to the predicted climatic conditions are needed. Such studies could make possible more reliable estimates of future climatic and vegetation responses.

Resumen

El cambio climático es intenso en la cuenca Amazónica. Los modelos climáticos predicen condiciones más secas y cálidas para finales del siglo 21. Como consecuencia, el estrés hídrico aumentará a través de la región. Aquí revisamos el conocimiento actual del impacto del cambio climático en los patrones de distribución, diversidad y funcionamiento de los bosques en la cuenca Amazónica. Examinamos 192 estudios basados en evidencia empírica, información histórica y modelos teóricos. Durante millones de años, las expansiones y contracciones de los bosques húmedos han estado acompañadas por cambios en su diversidad y productividad. En el futuro, la sequía provocará contracciones de los bosques húmedos a lo largo del límite con las sabanas, causando una extensa sabanización, particularmente en el oriente. En términos de diversidad, el calentamiento puede afectar la sobrevivencia de las especies vegetales al disminuir su productividad; sin embargo, podrían ocurrir extinciones como resultado de un desequilibrio en la vegetación, pues muchas especies vegetales, dispersores y polinizadores sucumbirán ante el cambio climático; sequías leves podrían eliminar los árboles del sotobosque y sequías severas podrían a su vez eliminar las especies del dosel. Intensas sequías producirán entonces cambios direccionales en la composición de las especies vegetales, pero estos cambios podrían variar de acuerdo al tipo de suelo. En términos del funcionamiento de los ecosistemas, las sequías reducirían el crecimiento de las raíces y la biomasa existente y transformarían los bosques Amazónicos en fuentes en lugar de sumideros de CO2. Aún no entendemos completamente las respuestas fisiológicas y ecológicas al calentamiento, así como la retroalimentación entre vegetación y clima. En particular, se requieren ensayos experimentales que permitan conclusiones directas sobre la respuesta de las plantas Amazónicas a las futuras condiciones climáticas. Tales estudios podrían dar lugar a estimativos más confiables de la futura distribución climática y de la vegetación en la cuenca Amazónica.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Flemming Nørgaard for drawing the figures and Naia Morueta-Holme, Rodrigo Cámara-Leret and Benjamin Blonder for their useful comments. We are also grateful to the reviewers for providing insight and posing critical questions. This work was funded by a training fellowship from the Department of Bioscience at Aarhus University and a student fellowship from Alberta Mennega Stichting. JCS was supported by the European Research Council (ERC-2012-StG-310886-HISTFUNC) and HB by a grant from the Danish Natural Science Research Council (10–083348).

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Olivares, I., Svenning, JC., van Bodegom, P.M. et al. Effects of Warming and Drought on the Vegetation and Plant Diversity in the Amazon Basin. Bot. Rev. 81, 42–69 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12229-014-9149-8

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Keywords

  • Geographical ecology
  • Functional ecology
  • Species distribution change
  • Plant communities
  • Tropical forests

Palabras clave

  • Ecología del paisaje
  • Ecología funcional
  • Distribución de especies
  • Comunidades vegetales
  • Bosques tropicales