Articles | Volume 17, issue 10
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 17, 3841–3852, 2013

Special issue: Predictions under change: water, earth, and biota in the anthropocene...

Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 17, 3841–3852, 2013

Review article 09 Oct 2013

Review article | 09 Oct 2013

A vital link: water and vegetation in the Anthropocene

D. Gerten D. Gerten
  • Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Research Domain 1: Earth System Analysis, 14473 Potsdam, Germany

Abstract. This paper argues that the interplay of water, carbon and vegetation dynamics fundamentally links some global trends in the current and conceivable future Anthropocene, such as cropland expansion, freshwater use, and climate change and its impacts. Based on a review of recent literature including geographically explicit simulation studies with the process-based LPJmL global biosphere model, it demonstrates that the connectivity of water and vegetation dynamics is vital for water security, food security and (terrestrial) ecosystem dynamics alike. The water limitation of net primary production of both natural and agricultural plants – already pronounced in many regions – is shown to increase in many places under projected climate change, though this development is partially offset by water-saving direct CO2 effects. Natural vegetation can to some degree adapt dynamically to higher water limitation, but agricultural crops usually require some form of active management to overcome it – among them irrigation, soil conservation and eventually shifts of cropland to areas that are less water-limited due to more favourable climatic conditions. While crucial to secure food production for a growing world population, such human interventions in water–vegetation systems have, as also shown, repercussions on the water cycle. Indeed, land use changes are shown to be the second-most important influence on the terrestrial water balance in recent times. Furthermore, climate change (warming and precipitation changes) will in many regions increase irrigation demand and decrease water availability, impeding rainfed and irrigated food production (if not CO2 effects counterbalance this impact – which is unlikely at least in poorly managed systems). Drawing from these exemplary investigations, some research perspectives on how to further improve our knowledge of human–water–vegetation interactions in the Anthropocene are outlined.