IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

4.4.4 Mediterranean ecosystems

Properties, goods and services

Mediterranean-type ecosystems (MTEs) are located in mid-latitudes on all continents (covering about 3.4 Mkm2), often on nutrient-poor soils and in coastal regions. These biodiverse systems (Cowling et al., 1996) are climatically distinct, with generally wet winters and dry summers (Cowling et al., 2005), and are thus fire-prone (Montenegro et al., 2004). Vegetation structure is mainly shrub-dominated, but woodlands, forests and even grasslands occur in limited regions. Heavily utilised landscapes are dominated by grasses, herbs and annual plant species (Lavorel, 1999). MTEs are valuable for high biodiversity overall (Myers et al., 2000) and thus favour nature-based tourism, but many extractive uses include wildflower harvesting in South Africa and Australia, medicinal herbs and spices, and grazing in the Mediterranean Basin and Chile. Water yield for human consumption and agriculture is critical in South Africa, and these systems provide overall soil-protection services on generally unproductive nutrient-poor soils.

Key vulnerabilities

Mediterranean-type ecosystems were not explicitly reviewed in the TAR, but threats from desertification were projected due to expansion of adjacent semi-arid and arid systems under relatively minor warming and drying scenarios. Warming and drying trends are likely to induce substantial species-range shifts, and imply a need for migration rates that will exceed the capacity of many endemic species. Land use, habitat fragmentation and intense human pressures will further limit natural adaptation responses, and fire-regime shifts may threaten specific species and plant functional types. Vegetation structural change driven by dominant, common or invasive species may also threaten rare species. Overall, a loss of biodiversity and carbon sequestration services may be realised over much of these regions.


These systems may be among the most impacted by global change drivers (Sala et al., 2000). Diverse Californian vegetation types may show substantial cover change for temperature increases greater than about 2°C, including desert and grassland expansion at the expense of shrublands, and mixed deciduous forest expansion at the expense of evergreen conifer forest (Hayhoe et al., 2004). The bioclimatic zone of the Cape Fynbos biome could lose 65% of its area under warming of 1.8°C relative to 1961-1990 (2.3°C, pre-industrial), with ultimate species extinction of 23% resulting in the long term (Thomas et al., 2004b). For Europe, only minor biome-level shifts are projected for Mediterranean vegetation types (Parry, 2000), contrasting with between 60 and 80% of current species projected not to persist in the southern European Mediterranean region (global mean temperature increase of 1.8°C – Bakkenes et al., 2002). Inclusion of hypothetical and uncertain CO2-fertilisation effects in biome-level modelling may partly explain this contrast. Land abandonment trends facilitate ongoing forest recovery (Mouillot et al., 2003) in the Mediterranean Basin, complicating projections. In south-western Australia, substantial vegetation shifts are projected under double CO2 scenarios (Malcolm et al., 2002b).

Climate change is likely to increase fire frequency and fire extent. Greater fire frequencies are noted in Mediterranean Basin regions (Pausas and Abdel Malak, 2004) with some exceptions (Mouillot et al., 2003). Double CO2 climate scenarios increase wildfire events by 40-50% in California (Fried et al., 2004), and double fire risk in Cape Fynbos (Midgley et al., 2005), favouring re-sprouting plants in Fynbos (Bond and Midgley, 2003), fire-tolerant shrub dominance in the Mediterranean Basin (Mouillot et al., 2002), and vegetation structural change in California (needle-leaved to broad-leaved trees, trees to grasses) and reducing productivity and carbon sequestration (Lenihan et al., 2003).

Projected rainfall changes are spatially complex (e.g., Sumner et al., 2003; Sanchez et al., 2004; Vicente-Serrano et al., 2004). Rainfall frequency reductions projected for some Mediterranean regions (e.g., Cheddadi et al., 2001) will exacerbate drought conditions, and have now been observed in the eastern Mediterranean (Körner et al., 2005b). Soil water content controls ecosystem water and CO2 flux in the Mediterranean Basin system (Rambal et al., 2003), and reductions are very likely to reduce ecosystem carbon and water flux (Reichstein et al., 2002). The 2003 European drought had major physiological impacts on Mediterranean vegetation and ecosystems, but most appeared to have recovered from drought by 2004 (Gobron et al., 2005; Box 4.1).

Many MTE species show apparently limited benefits from rising atmospheric CO2 (Dukes et al., 2005), with constrained increases in above-ground productivity (e.g., Blaschke et al., 2001; Maroco et al., 2002). Yet modelling suggests that under all but extremely dry conditions, CO2 increases over the past century have already increased NPP and leaf area index (see Glossary) in the Mediterranean Basin, despite warming and drying trends (Osborne et al., 2000). Rising atmospheric CO2 appears increasingly unlikely to have a major impact in MTEs over the next decades, especially because of consistent projections of reduced rainfall. Elevated CO2 is projected to facilitate forest expansion and greater carbon storage in California if precipitation increases (Bachelet et al., 2001). In the Mediterranean Basin, CO2-fertilisation impacts such as increased forest success in the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey and increased shrub cover in northern Africa are simulated if rainfall does not decrease (Cheddadi et al., 2001). There is currently insufficient evidence to project elevated CO2-induced shifts in ecosystem carbon stocks in MTE, but nutrient-limited systems appear relatively unaffected (de Graaff et al., 2006). Established Pinus halepensis (Borghetti et al., 1998) show high drought resistance, but Ponderosa pine forests had reduced productivity and water flux during a 1997 heatwave, and did not recover for the rest of the season, indicating threshold responses to extreme events (Goldstein et al., 2000). Mediterranean Basin pines (Martinez-Vilalta and Pinol, 2002) and other woody species (Peñuelas et al., 2001) showed species-specific drought tolerance under field conditions. Experimental drying differentially reduced productivity of Mediterranean Basin shrub species (Llorens et al., 2003, 2004; Ogaya and Peñuelas, 2004) and tree species (Ogaya and Peñuelas, 2003), but delayed flowering and reduced flower production of Mediterranean Basin shrub species (Llorens and Peñuelas, 2005), suggesting complex changes in species relative success under drying scenarios. Drought may also act indirectly on plants by reducing the availability of soil phosphorus (Sardans and Peñuelas, 2004).

Bioclimatic niche-based modelling studies project reduced endemic species’ geographical ranges and species richness in the Cape Floristic region (Midgley et al., 2002, 2003, 2006). Ranges of trees and shrubs may shift unpredictably, and fragment, under IS92a emissions scenarios (Shafer et al., 2001). In southern Europe, species composition change may be high under a range of scenarios (Thuiller et al., 2005b). Range size reductions increase species’ extinction risks, with up to 30 to 40% facing increased extinction probabilities beyond 2050 (Thomas et al., 2004a). Species of lowland plains may be at higher risk than montane species both in California (Peterson, 2003) and the Cape Floristic region (Midgley et al., 2003), although in the Mediterranean Basin, montane species show high risk (Thuiller et al., 2005b).