Disentangling the effects of climate and people on Sahel vegetation dynamics
Abstract. The Sahel belt of Africa has been the focus of intensive scientific research since the 1960s, spurred on by the chronic vulnerability of its population to recurring drought and the threat of long-term land degradation. But satellite sensors have recently shown that much of the region has experienced significant increases in photosynthetic activity since the early 1980s, thus re-energizing long-standing debates about the role that people play in shaping land surface status, and thus climate at regional scales. In this paper, we test the hypothesis that people have had a measurable impact on vegetation dynamics in the Sahel for the period 1982–2002. We compare potential natural vegetation dynamics predicted by a process-based ecosystem model with satellite-derived greenness observations, and map the agreement between the two across a geographic grid at a spatial resolution of 0.5°. As aggregated data-model agreement is very good, any local differences between the two could be due to human impact. We then relate this agreement metric to state-of-the-art data sets on demographics, pasture, and cropping. Our findings suggest that demographic and agricultural pressures in the Sahel are unable to account for differences between simulated and observed vegetation dynamics, even for the most densely populated areas. But we do identify a weak, positive correlation between data-model agreement and pasture intensity at the Sahel-wide level. This indicates that herding or grazing does not appreciably affect vegetation dynamics in the region. Either people have not had a significant impact on vegetation dynamics in the Sahel or the identification of a human "footprint" is precluded by inconsistent or subtle vegetation response to complex socio-environmental interactions, and/or limitations in the data used for this study. We do not exclude the possibility of a greater human influence on vegetation dynamics over the coming decades with changing land use.