Tree cover change proves stability and instability in tropical ecosystems

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Chandrakant Singh, Ruud van der Ent, Lan Wang-Erlandsson, Ingo Fetzer


The resilience of terrestrial ecosystems is predominantly based on space-for-time substitution. This substitution assumes that the contemporary spatial frequency distribution of ecosystems’ tree cover structure holds across time. However, this assumption is problematic, especially when temporal dynamics and adaptations are increasingly important to explicitly account for ongoing rapid changes across time. Here we empirically study ecosystems’ stability and adaptation dynamics over the last two decades by examining tree cover change (ΔTC) and root zone storage capacity (Sr; buffer capacity towards water-stress). We find that ecosystems at both high (>75%) and low (<10%) tree cover experience limited ΔTC – signifying stability. Whereas considerable ΔTC is observed at intermediate (30-60%) tree cover ecosystems – indicating instability. Our results suggest that stable ecosystems retain their structural integrity by instigating investment in their subsoil structure (i.e., Sr). In contrast, unstable ecosystems are unable to exploit the same level of adaptation as stable ecosystems, thereby making them prone to transitions. Furthermore, ignoring this adaptive capacity can largely underestimate the resilience of the forest ecosystems, which we find in the case of the Congo rainforests. This study emphasises the importance of temporal dynamics and adaptation of ecosystems in inferring and assessing the risk of forest-savannah transitions under change.



Earth Sciences, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Forest Biology, Hydrology, Remote Sensing


remote sensing, resilience, alternative stable states, rainforests, root zone storage capacity


Published: 2021-09-17 09:06

Last Updated: 2021-10-06 06:28

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CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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Conflict of interest statement:
The authors declare no competing interests.

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