Suitable Days for Plant Growth Disappear under Projected Climate Change: Potential Human and Biotic Vulnerability

Camilo Mora, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Iain R. Caldwell, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology
Jamie M. Caldwell, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology
Micah R. Fisher, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Brandon M. Genco, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Steven W. Running, University of Montana - Missoula

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Ongoing climate change can alter conditions for plant growth, in turn affecting ecological and social systems. While there have been considerable advances in understanding the physical aspects of climate change, comprehensive analyses integrating climate, biological, and social sciences are less common. Here we use climate projections under alternative mitigation scenarios to show how changes in environmental variables that limit plant growth could impact ecosystems and people. We show that although the global mean number of days above freezing will increase by up to 7% by 2100 under “business as usual” (representative concentration pathway [RCP] 8.5), suitable growing days will actually decrease globally by up to 11% when other climatic variables that limit plant growth are considered (i.e., temperature, water availability, and solar radiation). Areas in Russia, China, and Canada are projected to gain suitable plant growing days, but the rest of the world will experience losses. Notably, tropical areas could lose up to 200 suitable plant growing days per year. These changes will impact most of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems, potentially triggering climate feedbacks. Human populations will also be affected, with up to ~2,100 million of the poorest people in the world (~30% of the world’s population) highly vulnerable to changes in the supply of plant-related goods and services. These impacts will be spatially variable, indicating regions where adaptations will be necessary. Changes in suitable plant growing days are projected to be less severe under strong and moderate mitigation scenarios (i.e., RCP 2.6 and RCP 4.5), underscoring the importance of reducing emissions to avoid such disproportionate impacts on ecosystems and people.