Climate change ‘will boost vegetation growth in the UK’

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Britain is predicted to see increased vegetation growth as a result of climate change, a new study shows.

Researchers from the University of Exeter studied the country in high resolution, using models to examine the local impact of two climate-change scenarios at 1.5 x 1.5 km scale.

They found that even a relatively gentle climate-change curve could result in drastic increases in the amount of vegetation in a short time.

Most such changes were increases, caused by factors such as warmer, wetter conditions and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stimulating plant growth. Warmer conditions elsewhere could cause soil to dry out, reducing plant productivity and decreasing vegetation rapidly.

“The general expected trend towards warmer, wetter weather is likely to cause an overall increase in vegetation in temperate places like Great Britain,” said Dr Chris Boulton of Exeter's Global Systems Institute (GSI).

“However, we wanted to find out whether even ‘smooth’ climate change might lead to abrupt shifts in vegetation.

“A lot of research has focused on ‘tipping points’ in large systems like rainforests and oceans.

“Our study doesn’t predict abrupt shifts across the whole of Great Britain - 0.5-1.5 per cent of the land area depending on the climate scenario - but it shows numerous shifts can happen on a localised level.”

The researchers used a new method for identifying 'abrupt' shifts to look for sudden changes in the total amount of carbon stored in vegetation over a short period of time.

“We also find early warning signals before some of the abrupt shifts. This is good news as it shows the potential for being able to predict them in the real world,” said Dr Boulton.

GSI director Professor Tim Lenton said: “We didn’t expect to see hundreds of localised abrupt shifts in the projections.

“Up to now, climate-driven abrupt shifts in vegetation have been rare in Great Britain.

“Our results should not be taken as specific predictions of where abrupt ecosystem change will happen.

“But they serve to illustrate that it could happen across Great Britain in a changing climate.”

Earlier this week, a report urged the UK to go “faster and further” to tackle climate change, loss of nature and rebuild the economy after the coronavirus pandemic. 

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