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Map of world vegetation shows big changes

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 15/08/2016

A mapping method developed by Otago University researchers has shown that more than a tenth of the earth's surface has changed in character since the 1980s.

The new system for mapping the world's biomes - large-scale vegetation formations - is aimed at providing an objective way for monitoring how vegetation reacts as climate changes.

Professor Steven Higgins and colleagues used the system to examine change in biomes over time and found that 13 per cent of the earth's land surface changed its biome state over the last three decades.

"This suggests that substantial shifts in the character of the earth's surface are under way," said Prof Higgins, head of the university's botany department.

"Examples include swathes of Namibia and north-central Australia transitioning into drier biome categories and large expanses of cold limited systems shifting to more productive categories."

Prof Higgins said that, while global change is the likely driver of the biome shifts detected, the study - published in the international journal Global Change Biology - did not attempt to establish such causal links.

The system uses satellite observations of the timing and intensity of vegetation activity, and how this relates to temperature and soil moisture, to classify the world's vegetation into 24 biome types.

Several other global biome maps exist, but the researchers' goal was to produce one that didn't rely on expert opinion or correlations between vegetation and climate.

Prof Higgins said being able to classify land surface objectively was important not only for monitoring change but also for comparing the behaviour of ecosystems in different parts of the world.

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