Mechanisms of shrubland expansion: Land use, climate, or CO2

Encroachment of trees and shrubs into grasslands and the ‘thicketization’ of savannas has occurred worldwide over the past century. These changes in vegetation structure are potentially relevant to climatic change as they may be indicative of historical shifts in climate and as they may influence biophysical aspects of land surface-atmosphere interactions and alter carbon and nitrogen cycles. Traditional explanations offered to account for the historic displacement of grasses by woody plants in many arid and semi-arid ecosystems have centered around changes in climatic, livestock grazing and fire regimes. More recently, it has been suggested that the increase in atmospheric CO2 since the industrial revolution has been the driving force. In this paper we evaluate the CO2 enrichment hypotheses and argue that historic, positive correlations between woody plant expansion and atmospheric CO2 are not cause and effect.