Rethinking catastrophe? Historical trajectories and modelled future vegetation change in southern Africa

Michael Timm Hoffman, Richard Rohde, L. Gillson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Most climate change projections for southern Africa describe a hotter and drier future for the subcontinent with catastrophic consequences for the environment and the socio-ecological sustainability of the region. We investigate whether evidence of the projections proposed for the climate and vegetation of the subcontinent is already evident. Results from the climate record indicate that the historical trend of increasing temperature is consistent with future projections for the region. Rainfall, however, appears not to have changed significantly.Results from an analysis of 1,321 repeat historical photographs indicate broad trends in vegetation trajectories in the major biomes of southern Africa. Contrary to early projections for the Succulent Karoo biome, biomass and cover have increased, largely in response to changes in land use practices in the region. Cover in the fire-adapted Fynbos biome has either remained stable or has increased over time with an unanticipated expansion of forest species, particularly in localities which have been protected from fire for long periods. The shrub-dominated Nama-karoo biome has seen an increase in grass cover, and rather than contracting, as suggested in the early modelled projections, the Grassland biome appears to have expanded westwards into former Nama-karoobiome sites. The Savanna biome has experienced a rapid increase in woody plant at rates that have not been anticipated by the models.An analysis of historical trajectories provides a useful context against which future trajectories can be evaluated. It also illustrates how land-use management has influenced vegetation change in the past and what might be done to mitigate some of the worst impacts of climate change in the future.
Original languageEnglish
Early online date28 Dec 2018
Publication statusPublished - 31 Mar 2019


  • bioclimatic envelope models
  • climate change impacts
  • environmental change
  • sustainability
  • degradation
  • desertification


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