Warming climate may mean less rainfall for drought-sensitive regions of the Southern Hemisphere, a new study says. Hundreds of species of unique South African plants may be affected.
"The link between climate change and rainfall in certain latitudes can have large effects on ecosystems," said Paul Filmer, of the National Science Foundation, which funded the work, said in a statement. "Plants, for example, may be able to grow in a wider area, or conversely, be squeezed up a mountain or onto a peninsula. When the affected ecosystem supports a food crop, that can mean a bonanza — or a famine."
Researchers found that rainfall in South Africa during the last 1,400 years was affected by temperature — with more rain falling during cool periods and less during warm ones.
The findings were published May 3 in the journal Climate of the Past.
Theoretical climate models have shown that global warming could push storm tracks southward "and away from the mainlands of southern Africa, South America and Australia," study researcher Curt Stager, of Paul Smith's College in New York, said in a statement. "This research supports those predictions of increasing aridity, which could lead to major problems for societies and ecosystems in these already-arid places."
A poleward shift in winds could also affect the flow of marine currents around the tip of Africa, changing air and water temperatures farther afield, including in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
Stager collected sediment samples from Lake Verlorenvlei in South Africa. By analyzing the diatoms — tiny, glassy-shelled algae — preserved in sediment cores from the bottom of the lake, the researchers were able to reconstruct rainfall patterns dating back to 600 A.D.
A sinuous belt of eastward winds that migrate like a meandering river governs rainfall at the southernmost tip of Africa. These winds are seasonal and in summer months, these winds drift closer to Antarctica, carrying rain clouds over the ocean; in winter, the winds move over the African continent.
The shifting winds bring rains that provide much of the annual water supply.
"A poleward retreat of these winds would have serious consequences for cities like Cape Town, for farms and wineries, and for local animal and plant communities," Stager said. "The same also appears to be true for the semi-arid winter rainfall regions of South America and Australia-New Zealand."
Hundreds of species of rare flowering plants native to the area's ecosystem are threatened by the changes. "These plants are tough, and are already used to dry conditions," study researcher Michael Meadows, of the University of Cape Town, said in a statement. "But more aridity could make fires more frequent, which could damage the soils and make it even harder for the plants to survive.
"Unfortunately, this is their only native habitat, so such a change might threaten their existence."
According to Stager, such links to mobile storm tracks make these regions exceptionally vulnerable to the effects of greenhouse gas build-up.
"When it comes to climate change, there's more to consider than warming alone," he said. "In places like these, increasing drought could bring far-reaching challenges."