How Vulnerable Are Grazing Lands to Climate Change?

Overall, both within and between-year precipitation variability has been increasing for global grazing lands. This map shows the changes in between-year variability: Of the total land area considered pasture in this analysis, 20 percent did not experience significant changes (in gray), while 31 percent experienced significant decreases (cool colors) and 49 percent experienced significant increases in precipitation variability (warm colors). (Image: via Nature Climate Change)

A study shows that grazing lands are vulnerable to climate change. Some 800 million people around the world depend on livestock that graze on natural vegetation for their livelihoods and food security. In a good season, grasses and other plants flourish, supporting robust herds. In a bad season, the system suffers — as do the people who rely on it. The difference between a good and bad year? One significant and increasingly volatile factor is precipitation.

A new study in Nature Climate Change reveals that over the past century, year-to-year precipitation variability has increased significantly on 49 percent of the world’s grazing lands, affecting vegetation and constraining its ability to support livestock.

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Grazing lands around the world vulnerable to climate change.
Overall, both within and between-year precipitation variability has been increasing for global grazing lands. This map shows the changes in between-year variability: Of the total land area considered pasture in this analysis, 20 percent did not experience significant changes (in gray), while 31 percent experienced significant decreases (cool colors) and 49 percent experienced significant increases in precipitation variability (warm colors). (Image: via Nature Climate Change)

The study’s authors, led by a team from the UMN Institute on the Environment, used climate data from 1901 to 2014 to create global maps of precipitation variability trends. While some grazing lands showed decreases in rainfall variability, the overall trend is an increase in fluctuation, both within and between years.

Grazing lands are already marginal

This insight is important, because grazing lands are already typically marginal — unsuitable for crops, either too dry or with poor soils.

Furthermore, some grazing lands are even more inhospitable than others. Changes in precipitation variability especially affect these more vulnerable lands, which — adding to global risk — also tend to be home to the smallholder farmers and pastoralists who most depend on livestock for food. The researchers found:

  • Global grazing lands already experience 25 percent more year-to-year variability in precipitation than the average global surface land area
  • Regions with high year-to-year precipitation variability support lower livestock densities than less variable regions
  • Overall precipitation variability has increased the most in areas where grazing is predicted to be important for local food access

Information provided by the University of Minnesota [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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