Ecosystem structural changes controlled by altered rainfall climatology in tropical savannas

Tropical savannas comprise mixed woodland grassland ecosystems in which trees and grasses compete for water resources thereby maintaining the spatial structuring of this ecosystem. A global change in rainfall climatology may impact the structure of tropical savanna ecosystems by favouring woody plants, relative to herbaceous vegetation. Here we analysed satellite data and observed a relatively higher increase in woody vegetation (5%) as compared to the increase in annual maximum leaf area index (LAImax, an indicator of the total green vegetation production) (3%) in arid and semi-arid savannas over recent decades. We further observed a declining sensitivity of LAImax to annual rainfall over 56% of the tropical savannas, spatially overlapping with areas of increased woody cover and altered rainfall climatology. This suggests a climate-induced shift in the coexistence of woody and herbaceous vegetation in savanna ecosystems, possibly caused by altered hydrological conditions with significance for land cover and associated biophysical effects such as surface albedo and evapotranspiration.