Widespread increasing vegetation sensitivity to soil moisture
July 11, 2022

Global vegetation and associated ecosystem services critically depend on soil moisture availability which has decreased in many regions during the last three decades. While spatial patterns of vegetation sensitivity to global soil water have been recently investigated, long-term changes in vegetation sensitivity to soil water availability are still unclear. Here we assess global vegetation sensitivity to soil moisture during 1982-2017 by applying explainable machine learning with observation-based leaf area index (LAI) and hydro-climate anomaly data. We show that LAI sensitivity to soil moisture significantly increases in many semi-arid and arid regions. LAI sensitivity trends are associated with multiple hydro-climate and ecological variables, and strongest increasing trends occur in the most water-sensitive regions which additionally experience declining precipitation. State-of-the-art land surface models do not reproduce this increasing sensitivity as they misrepresent water-sensitive regions and sensitivity strength. Our sensitivity results imply an increasing ecosystem vulnerability to water availability which can lead to exacerbated reductions in vegetation carbon uptake under future intensified drought, consequently amplifying climate change.

Article published in Nature communications,
by PhD student Wantong Li in the group of René Orth, together with several colleagues at MPI-BGC.

Wantong Li

Dr. René Orth

Link to paper
link to research group R. Orth