Tree cover shows strong sensitivity to precipitation variability across the global tropics

Xiangtao Xu, David Medvigy, Anna T. Trugman, Kaiyu Guan, Stephen P. Good, Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Aim: Vegetation is sensitive to mean annual precipitation (MAP), but the sensitivity of vegetation to precipitation variability (PV) is less clear. Tropical ecosystems are likely to experience increased PV in the future. Here we assessed the importance, magnitude and mechanism of PV effects on tree cover in the context of covarying environmental drivers such as fire, temperature and soil properties. Location: Tropical land. Time period: 2000–2010. Major taxa studied: Trees. Methods: We compiled climate, soil and remotely-sensed tree cover data over tropical land. We then comprehensively assessed the contribution of PV at different time-scales to tropical tree cover variations and estimated the sensitivity of tree cover to PV changes by conducting rolling-window regression and variance decomposition analyses. We further adopted a mechanistic modelling approach to test whether water competition between trees and grasses can explain the observed effect of PV. Results: We find that PV contributes 33–56% to the total explained spatial variation (65–79%) in tree cover. The contribution of PV depends on MAP and is highest under intermediate MAP (500–1,500 mm). Tree cover generally increases with rainy day frequency and wet season length but shows mixed responses to inter-annual PV. Based on the estimated sensitivity, tropical tree cover can decrease by 3–5% overall and by up to 20% in Amazonia under a 20% decrease in rainy days. Mechanistic modelling analysis reproduced the continental differences in tree cover along an MAP gradient. Main conclusions: Under intermediate rainfall regimes (500–1,500 mm), PV can be a more important determinant of tropical tree cover than conventionally proposed drivers such as MAP and fire. The effect of PV likely results from the sensitivity of tree–grass competition to the temporal distribution of water resources. These results show that climate variability can strongly shape the biosphere.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)450-460
Number of pages11
JournalGlobal Ecology and Biogeography
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2018


  • biogeography
  • climate variability
  • ecohydrology
  • precipitation variability
  • tree cover
  • tree–grass competition
  • tropical ecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


Dive into the research topics of 'Tree cover shows strong sensitivity to precipitation variability across the global tropics'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this