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Resistance of African tropical forests to an extreme climate anomaly

Bennet, Amy and Dargie, Greta and Cuni-Sanchez, Aida and Mukendi, John Tshibamba and Hubau, Wannes and Mukenzi, Jacques and Phillips, Oliver and Mahli, Yadvinder and Sullivan, Martin and Bredu, Stephen Adu and Affum-Baffoe, Kofi and Amani, Christian A and Banin, Lindsay F and Beeckman, Hans and Begne, Serge K and Bocko, Yannick E and Boeckx, Pascal and Bogaert, Jan and Brncic, Terry and Chezeaux, Eric and Clark, Connie J and Cooper, Declan LM and Daniels, Armandu K and de Haulleville, Thales and Doucet, Jean-Louis and Evouna Ondo, Fidèle and Ewango, Corneille EN and Feldpausch, Ted R and Foli, Ernest G and Gonmadje, Christelle and Hall, Jefferson S and Hardy, Olivier J and Harris, David J and Ifo, Suspense A and Jeffery, Kathryn J and Kamdem Djuikouo, Marie-Noël and Kearsley, Elizabeth and Leal, Miguel and Levesley, Aurora and Makana, Jean-Remy and Mbayu Lukasu, Faustin and Medjibe, Vincent P and Mihindu, Vianet and Moore, Sam and Natacha Nssi Begone and Pickavance, Georgia C and Poulsen, John R and Reitsma, Jan and Sonké, Bonaventure and Sunderland, Terry CH and Taedoumg, Hermann and Talbot, Joey and Tuagben, Darlington S and Umunay, Peter M and Verbeeck, Hans and Vleminckx, Jason and White, Lee JT and Woell, Hannsjoerg and Woods, John T and Zemagho, Lise and Lewis, Simon (2021) Resistance of African tropical forests to an extreme climate anomaly. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of USA, 118 (21). ISSN 0027-8424


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The responses of tropical forests to environmental change are critical uncertainties in predicting the future impacts of climate change. The positive phase of the 2015–2016 El Niño Southern Oscillation resulted in unprecedented heat and low precipitation in the tropics with substantial impacts on the global carbon cycle. The role of African tropical forests is uncertain as their responses to short-term drought and temperature anomalies have yet to be determined using on-the-ground measurements. African tropical forests may be particularly sensitive because they exist in relatively dry conditions compared with Amazonian or Asian forests, or they may be more resistant because of an abundance of drought-adapted species. Here, we report responses of structurally intact old-growth lowland tropical forests inventoried within the African Tropical Rainforest Observatory Network (AfriTRON). We use 100 long-term inventory plots from six countries each measured at least twice prior to and once following the 2015–2016 El Niño event. These plots experienced the highest temperatures and driest conditions on record. The record temperature did not significantly reduce carbon gains from tree growth or significantly increase carbon losses from tree mortality, but the record drought did significantly decrease net carbon uptake. Overall, the long-term biomass increase of these forests was reduced due to the El Niño event, but these plots remained a live biomass carbon sink (0.51 ± 0.40 Mg C ha−1 y−1) despite extreme environmental conditions. Our analyses, while limited to African tropical forests, suggest they may be more resistant to climatic extremes than Amazonian and Asian forests.

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