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Climate, fire, and anthropogenic disturbance determine the current global distribution of tropical forest and savanna

  • Williamson, Grant J
  • Tng, David YP
  • Bowman, David MJS
Published Article
Environmental Research Letters
IOP Publishing
Publication Date
Feb 01, 2024
DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ad20ac


Tropical forest and savanna biomes are pivotal in the functioning of the Earth system. Both are biodiverse and under increasing threat due to land clearing and anthropogenic climate change, and play important roles in the global carbon cycle, through maintenance of a large carbon pool in tropical forests, and exchange in savannas through extensive landscape fires. Reliable mapping of tropical forest and savanna is essential to understand how the current distribution of these vegetation types is controlled by climate land clearing and fire. Using Google Maps satellite imagery, we manually classified 24 239 random points as forest, savanna, or anthropogenic landscapes within the tropics and applied this novel dataset to defining the climatic zone where forest and savanna exist as alternative states. Because fire and climate are correlated, we developed separate geospatial models to rank the importance of climate, topography, and human influence on vegetation present. This modeling confirmed that those areas with more fires had lower probabilities of tropical forest, that forest was most likely in areas with high mean annual rainfall with little seasonal variation in precipitation, and that anthropogenic factors disrupt this environmental predictability. We also identified areas where tropical forest and savanna both co-occur, but these were relatively uncommon. These relationships suggest that future drier climates projected under anthropogenic climate change, combined with clearing and burning that have reduced tropical forest extent to a subset of its theoretical distribution, will lead to irreversible loss of tropical forests. Our modeling provides global mapping that can be used track further changes to distribution of tropical forests.

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