Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Desertification


Tropical carbon emissions are largely derived from direct forest clearing processes. Yet, emissions from drought-induced forest fires are, usually, not included in national-level carbon emission inventories. Here we examine Brazilian Amazon drought impacts on fire incidence and associated forest fire carbon emissions over the period 2003-2015. We show that despite a 76% decline in deforestation rates over the past 13 years, fire incidence increased by 36% during the 2015 drought compared to the preceding 12 years. The 2015 drought had the largest ever ratio of active fire counts to deforestation, with active fires occurring over an area of 799,293 km2. Gross emissions from forest fires (989 ± 504 Tg CO2year-1) alone are more than half as great as those from old-growth forest deforestation during drought years. We conclude that carbon emission inventories intended for accounting and developing policies need to take account of substantial forest fire emissions not associated to the deforestation process.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Rainforest, Emission standard, Global warming potential, Global warming, Deforestation, Desertification, Climate forcing agents


Human activity and related land use change are the primary cause of accelerated soil erosion, which has substantial implications for nutrient and carbon cycling, land productivity and in turn, worldwide socio-economic conditions. Here we present an unprecedentedly high resolution (250 × 250 m) global potential soil erosion model, using a combination of remote sensing, GIS modelling and census data. We challenge the previous annual soil erosion reference values as our estimate, of 35.9 Pg yr-1 of soil eroded in 2012, is at least two times lower. Moreover, we estimate the spatial and temporal effects of land use change between 2001 and 2012 and the potential offset of the global application of conservation practices. Our findings indicate a potential overall increase in global soil erosion driven by cropland expansion. The greatest increases are predicted to occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. The least developed economies have been found to experience the highest estimates of soil erosion rates.

Concepts: Africa, Soil, Erosion, Surface runoff, Drought, Geomorphology, Deforestation, Desertification


During the “Green Sahara” period (11,000 to 5000 years before the present), the Sahara desert received high amounts of rainfall, supporting diverse vegetation, permanent lakes, and human populations. Our knowledge of rainfall rates and the spatiotemporal extent of wet conditions has suffered from a lack of continuous sedimentary records. We present a quantitative reconstruction of western Saharan precipitation derived from leaf wax isotopes in marine sediments. Our data indicate that the Green Sahara extended to 31°N and likely ended abruptly. We find evidence for a prolonged “pause” in Green Sahara conditions 8000 years ago, coincident with a temporary abandonment of occupational sites by Neolithic humans. The rainfall rates inferred from our data are best explained by strong vegetation and dust feedbacks; without these mechanisms, climate models systematically fail to reproduce the Green Sahara. This study suggests that accurate simulations of future climate change in the Sahara and Sahel will require improvements in our ability to simulate vegetation and dust feedbacks.

Concepts: Africa, Sahara, Climate, Niger, Chad, Monsoon, Sahel, Desertification


Little is known about the peopling of the Sahara during the Holocene climatic optimum, when the desert was replaced by a fertile environment.

Concepts: Holocene, Desertification, Deserts


The Sahel region of West Africa has the highest bacterial meningitis attack and case fatality rate in the world. The effect of climatic factors on patterns of invasive respiratory bacterial disease is not well documented.

Concepts: Bacteria, Africa, Sahara, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, West Africa, Sahel, Desertification


For centuries ecologists have studied how the diversity and functional traits of plant and animal communities vary across biomes. In contrast, we have only just begun exploring similar questions for soil microbial communities despite soil microbes being the dominant engines of biogeochemical cycles and a major pool of living biomass in terrestrial ecosystems. We used metagenomic sequencing to compare the composition and functional attributes of 16 soil microbial communities collected from cold deserts, hot deserts, forests, grasslands, and tundra. Those communities found in plant-free cold desert soils typically had the lowest levels of functional diversity (diversity of protein-coding gene categories) and the lowest levels of phylogenetic and taxonomic diversity. Across all soils, functional beta diversity was strongly correlated with taxonomic and phylogenetic beta diversity; the desert microbial communities were clearly distinct from the nondesert communities regardless of the metric used. The desert communities had higher relative abundances of genes associated with osmoregulation and dormancy, but lower relative abundances of genes associated with nutrient cycling and the catabolism of plant-derived organic compounds. Antibiotic resistance genes were consistently threefold less abundant in the desert soils than in the nondesert soils, suggesting that abiotic conditions, not competitive interactions, are more important in shaping the desert microbial communities. As the most comprehensive survey of soil taxonomic, phylogenetic, and functional diversity to date, this study demonstrates that metagenomic approaches can be used to build a predictive understanding of how microbial diversity and function vary across terrestrial biomes.

Concepts: Antibiotic resistance, Precipitation, Antarctica, Water table, Tundra, Geomorphology, Desert, Desertification


Over many decades our understanding of the impacts of intermittent drought in water-limited environments like the West African Sahel has been influenced by a narrative of overgrazing and human-induced desertification. The desertification narrative has persisted in both scientific and popular conception, such that recent regional-scale recovery (“regreening”) and local success stories (community-led conservation efforts) in the Sahel, following the severe droughts of the 1970s-1980s, are sometimes ignored. Here we report a study of watershed-scale vegetation dynamics in 260 watersheds, sampled in four regions of Senegal, Mali, and Niger from 1983-2012, using satellite-derived vegetation indices as a proxy for net primary production. In response to earlier controversy, we first examine the shape of the rainfall-net primary production relationship and how it impacts conclusions regarding greening or degradation. We conclude that the choice of functional relationship has little quantitative impact on our ability to infer greening or degradation trends. We then present an approach to analyze changes in long-term (decade-scale) average rain-use efficiency (an indicator of slowly responding vegetation structural changes) relative to changes in interannual-scale rainfall sensitivity (an indicator of landscape ability to respond rapidly to rainfall variability) to infer trends in greening/degradation of the watersheds in our sample regions. The predominance of increasing rain-use efficiency in our data supports earlier reports of a “greening” trend across the Sahel. However, there are strong regional differences in the extent and direction of change, and in the apparent role of changing woody and herbaceous components in driving those temporal trends.

Concepts: Africa, Sahara, Nigeria, West Africa, Niger, Senegal, Sahel, Desertification


Each year more than two billion songbirds cross the Sahara, but how they perform this formidable task is largely unknown. Using geolocation tracks from 27 pied flycatchers, a nocturnally migrating passerine, we show that most birds made diurnal flights in both autumn and spring. These diurnal flights were estimated to be part of non-stop flights of mostly 40-60 h. In spring, birds flew across the Sahara, while autumn migration probably circumpassed part of the desert, through a long oversea flight. Our data contradict claims that passerines cross the Sahara by intermittent flight and daytime resting. The frequent occurrence of long non-stop flights to cross the desert shows migrants' physiological abilities and poses the question why this would not be the general migration strategy to cross the Sahara.

Concepts: Bird, Desertification


Drought-induced agricultural loss is one of the most costly impacts of extreme weather(1-3), and without mitigation, climate change is likely to increase the severity and frequency of future droughts(4,5). The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was the driest and hottest for agriculture in modern US history. Improvements in farming practices have increased productivity, but yields today are still tightly linked to climate variation(6) and the impacts of a 1930s-type drought on current and future agricultural systems remain unclear. Simulations of biophysical process and empirical models suggest that Dust-Bowl-type droughts today would have unprecedented consequences, with yield losses ∼50% larger than the severe drought of 2012. Damages at these extremes are highly sensitive to temperature, worsening by ∼25% with each degree centigrade of warming. We find that high temperatures can be more damaging than rainfall deficit, and, without adaptation, warmer mid-century temperatures with even average precipitation could lead to maize losses equivalent to the Dust Bowl drought. Warmer temperatures alongside consecutive droughts could make up to 85% of rain-fed maize at risk of changes that may persist for decades. Understanding the interactions of weather extremes and a changing agricultural system is therefore critical to effectively respond to, and minimize, the impacts of the next extreme drought event.

Concepts: Precipitation, Temperature, Food security, Global warming, Great Plains, Great Depression, Desertification, Climate change and agriculture


The global terrestrial carbon sink offsets one-third of the world’s fossil fuel emissions, but the strength of this sink is highly sensitive to large-scale extreme events. In 2012, the contiguous United States experienced exceptionally warm temperatures and the most severe drought since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, resulting in substantial economic damage. It is crucial to understand the dynamics of such events because warmer temperatures and a higher prevalence of drought are projected in a changing climate. Here, we combine an extensive network of direct ecosystem flux measurements with satellite remote sensing and atmospheric inverse modeling to quantify the impact of the warmer spring and summer drought on biosphere-atmosphere carbon and water exchange in 2012. We consistently find that earlier vegetation activity increased spring carbon uptake and compensated for the reduced uptake during the summer drought, which mitigated the impact on net annual carbon uptake. The early phenological development in the Eastern Temperate Forests played a major role for the continental-scale carbon balance in 2012. The warm spring also depleted soil water resources earlier, and thus exacerbated water limitations during summer. Our results show that the detrimental effects of severe summer drought on ecosystem carbon storage can be mitigated by warming-induced increases in spring carbon uptake. However, the results also suggest that the positive carbon cycle effect of warm spring enhances water limitations and can increase summer heating through biosphere-atmosphere feedbacks.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Water, Hydrology, Carbon, Fossil fuel, 1930s, Desertification, Dust Bowl