Rootzone storage capacity reveals drought coping strategies along rainforest-savanna transitions

Chandrakant Singh, Lan Wang-Erlandsson, Ingo Fetzer, Johan Rockström, Ruud Van Der Ent

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Climate change and deforestation have increased the risk of drought-induced forest-to-savanna transitions across the tropics and subtropics. However, the present understanding of forest-savanna transitions is generally focused on the influence of rainfall and fire regime changes, but does not take into account the adaptability of vegetation to droughts by utilizing subsoil moisture in a quantifiable metric. Using rootzone storage capacity (S r), which is a novel metric to represent the vegetation's ability to utilize subsoil moisture storage and tree cover (TC), we analyze and quantify the occurrence of these forest-savanna transitions along transects in South America and Africa. We found forest-savanna transition thresholds to occur around a S r of 550-750 mm for South America and 400-600 mm for Africa in the range of 30%-40% TC. Analysis of empirical and statistical patterns allowed us to classify the ecosystem's adaptability to droughts into four classes of drought coping strategies: lowly water-stressed forest (shallow roots, high TC), moderately water-stressed forest (investing in S r, high TC), highly water-stressed forest (trade-off between investments in S r and TC) and savanna-grassland regime (competitive rooting strategy, low TC). The insights from this study are useful for improved understanding of tropical eco-hydrological adaptation, drought coping strategies, and forest ecosystem regime shifts under future climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Article number124021
Number of pages13
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Amazon
  • Congo
  • ecohydrology
  • ecosystem dynamics
  • remote sensing
  • transects
  • water-stress

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