Global climate and the distribution of plant biomes

F. I. Woodward, M. R. Lomas, C. K. Kelly

Abstract

Biomes are areas of vegetation that are characterized by the same life–form. Traditional definitions of biomes have also included either geographical or climatic descriptors. This approach describes a wide range of biomes that can be correlated with characteristic climatic conditions, or climatic envelopes. The application of remote sensing technology to the frequent observation of biomes has led to a move away from the often subjective definition of biomes to one that is objective. Carefully characterized observations of life–form, by satellite, have been used to reconsider biome classification and their climatic envelopes. Five major tree biomes can be recognized by satellites based on leaf longevity and morphology: needleleaf evergreen, broadleaf evergreen, needleleaf deciduous, broadleaf cold deciduous and broadleaf drought deciduous. Observations indicate that broadleaf drought deciduous vegetation grades substantially into broadleaf evergreen vegetation. The needleleaf deciduous biome occurs in the world's coldest climates, where summer drought and therefore a drought deciduous biome are absent.

Traditional biome definitions are quite static, implying no change in their life–form composition with time, within their particular climatic envelopes. However, this is not the case where there has been global ingress of grasslands and croplands into forested vegetation. The global spread of grasses, a new super–biome, was probably initiated 30–45 Myr ago by an increase in global aridity, and was driven by the natural spread of the disturbances of fire and animal grazing. These disturbances have been further extended over the Holocene era by human activities that have increased the land areas available for domestic animal grazing and for growing crops. The current situation is that grasses now occur in most, if not all biomes, and in many areas they dominate and define the biome. Croplands are also increasing, defining a new and relatively recent component to the grassland super–biome. In the case of both grassland and croplands, various forms of disturbance, particularly frequent disturbance, lead to continued range extensions of the biomes.