Plants in deserts are dying off due to climate change ‘and nothing is replacing them’

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Anza Borrego State Park badlands in the morning, California.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has become less green as the years have gone by. (Getty)

Plants in California’s deserts are dying off due to climate change, and the land is being left bare, a new study has shown. 

“Plants are dying, and nothing’s replacing them,” said Stijn Hantson, a project scientist in University of California, Irvine’s (UCI) Department of Earth System Science and lead author of the study.  

The research shows how desert areas – where researchers had hoped plants might be more resilient – can be blighted by climate change. 

Researchers used data from the Landsat satellite mission to measure vegetation in an area of nearly 5,000 square miles surrounding Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

The researchers found that between 1984 and 2017, vegetation cover in desert ecosystems decreased overall by about 35%, with mountains seeing a 13% vegetation decline.

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The decrease has been caused by rainfall which has varied from year to year, along with climbing temperatures caused by climate change. 

The researchers had hoped that desert plants would stand a chance against climate change, as they come equipped with drought-tolerant features.

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The researchers say that the plants exist right on the edge of what’s habitable, so any environmental shift toward greater extremes is likely to be detrimental. 

“They’re already on the brink,” Hantson said.

Landsat satellite imagery, Hantson says, is ideal for gauging vegetation cover shifts because it supplies spectral data for surface areas of about 90 square meters – fine enough to track changing spectral signal patterns across large study areas. 

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The data provide a sense of how “green” a landscape is and helped the UCI team discern shifts across the study’s 34-year time window.

Long-term plant monitoring is now underway in Anza-Borrego so that researchers can see what happens to vegetation cover as the years unfold.

Changes in plant communities can affect many things, from how well soils retain water to how much food there is for desert animals.

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