EGU General Assembly 2020
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Global-scale characterization of turning points in arid and semi-arid ecosystems functioning

Paulo Bernardino1,2, Wanda De Keersmaecker2, Rasmus Fensholt3, Jan Verbesselt1, Ben Somers2, and Stephanie Horion3
Paulo Bernardino et al.
  • 1KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium (
  • 2Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands
  • 3Copenhagen University, Copenhagen, Denmark

Ecosystems in drylands are highly susceptible to changes in their way of functioning due to extreme and prolonged droughts or anthropogenic perturbation. Long-standing pressure, from climate or human action, may result in severe alterations in their dynamics. Moreover, changes in dryland ecosystems functioning can take place abruptly (Horion et al., 2016). Such abrupt changes may have severe ecological and economic consequences, disturbing the livelihood of drylands inhabitants and causing increased poverty and food insecurity. Considering that drylands cover 40% of Earth’s land surface and are home to around one-third of the human population, detecting and characterizing hotspots of abrupt changes in ecosystem functioning (here called turning points) becomes even more crucial.

BFAST, a time series segmentation technique, was used to detect breakpoints in time series (1982-2015) of rain-use efficiency. An abrupt change in rain-use efficiency time series points towards a significant change in the way an ecosystem responds to precipitation, allowing the study of turning points in ecosystem functioning in both natural and anthropogenic landscapes. Moreover, we here proposed a new typology to characterize turning points in ecosystem functioning, which takes into account the trend in ecosystem functioning before and after the turning point, as well as differences in the rate of change. Case studies were used to evaluate the performance of the new typology. Finally, ancillary data on population density and drought were used to have some first insights about the potential determinants of hotspots of turning point occurrence.

Our results showed that 13.6% of global drylands presented a turning point in ecosystem functioning between 1982 and 2015. Hotspots of turning point occurrence were observed in North America (where 62.6% of the turning points were characterized by a decreasing trend in ecosystem functioning), the Sahel, Central Asia, and Australia. The last three hotspot regions were mainly characterized by a positive trend in ecosystem functioning after the turning point. The ancillary data pointed to an influence of both droughts and human action on turning point occurrence in North America, while in Asia and Australia turning point occurrence was higher in areas with higher anthropogenic pressure. In the grasslands of the Sahel, turning points were potentially related to drought. 

By detecting where and when hotspots of turning points occurred in recent decades, and by characterizing the trends in ecosystem functioning before and after the turning points, we advanced towards better supporting decision making related to ecosystems conservation and management in drylands. Moreover, we provided first insights about the drivers of ecosystem functioning change in hotspots of turning point occurrence in global drylands (Bernardino et al., 2019).



Bernardino PN, De Keersmaecker W, Fensholt R, Verbesselt J, Somers B, Horion S (2019) Global-scale characterization of turning points in arid and semi-arid ecosystems functioning. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Horion S, Prishchepov A V., Verbesselt J, de Beurs K, Tagesson T, Fensholt R (2016) Revealing turning points in ecosystem functioning over the Northern Eurasian agricultural frontier. Global change biology, 22, 2801–2817.

How to cite: Bernardino, P., De Keersmaecker, W., Fensholt, R., Verbesselt, J., Somers, B., and Horion, S.: Global-scale characterization of turning points in arid and semi-arid ecosystems functioning, EGU General Assembly 2020, Online, 4–8 May 2020, EGU2020-13375,, 2020


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