Understanding the Interactions Between Climate Change, Biodiversity, and Agriculture in South Africa

2007-09 GC Seed Grant

This project, co-funded through the Development and Energy Challenges, examines the impacts to biodiversity that might occur as humans adapt to climate change. Such “second order” impacts to biodiversity may be far greater than the direct effects of climatic change, but remain largely uninvestigated to date. This is of particular concern in areas where changes in productivity or economic viability of certain types of agriculture may bring under the plow those forest or grassland habitats that are currently uncultivated or otherwise managed in a low-impact manner.

Michael Oppenheimer leads a discussion in his course “Environmental Decision Making.”

The research addresses this issue by examining the interaction between agriculture, climate change, and biodiversity in South Africa. The team’s approach is to use a combination of the process-based and bioclimatic envelope models to identify areas where the productivity/suitability of major South African crops will be most affected by climate change.Preliminary projections show that the dryland wheat-growing region in South Africa’s Western Cape will contract, while the center of the dryland maize production area will shift eastwards.

Educational Impacts

Michael Oppenheimer built a section covering biodiversity into his “Climate Change” course, and will also use this material in his “Environmental Decision Making” course. Four undergraduates have also assisted on this project. An MSc student from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology will be collaborating with the team this Summer and Fall to pursue a thesis related to the project.

Other Outcomes

The project team has established many new collaborations for this project, particularly with South African partners at the Universities of Cape Town and Kwazulu-Natal, South African National Parks, the Agricultural Research Council, and the National Department of Agriculture, who bring expertise in climatology, hydrology, soil science, agronomy, crop modeling, and biodiversity planning, among other skills.

The project has resulted in the following publications:

  • Bradley, B.A., Estes, L.D., Hole, D.G., Holness, S., Oppenheimer, M.G., Turner, W.R., Beukes, H., Schulze, R.E., Tadross, M.A. & Wilcove, D.S. (2012) Predicting how adaptation to climate change could affect ecological conservation: secondary impacts of shifting agricultural suitability. Diversity and Distributions, 18, 425–437.
  • Estes, L.D., Bradley, B.A., Beukes, H., Hole, D.G., Lau, M., Oppenheimer, M.G., Schulze, R., Tadross, M.A. & Turner, W.R. (2013) Comparing mechanistic and empirical model projections of crop suitability and productivity: implications for ecological forecasting. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 22, 1007–1018.
  • Estes, L.D., Paroz, L., Bradley, B.A., Hole, D.G., Holness, S., Ziv, G., Oppenheimer, M., Schulze, R.E. & Wilcove, D.S. (2013) Using changes in agricultural utility to quantify future climate-induced risk to conservation. Conservation Biology, in press.
  • Estes, L.D., Beukes, H., Bradley, B.A., Debats, S.R., Oppenheimer, M., Ruane, A., Schulze, R.E. & Tadross, M.A. (2013) Projected climate impacts to South African maize and wheat production in 2055: A comparison of empirical and mechanistic modeling approaches. Global Change Biology, doi:10.1111/gcb.12325.
  • Turner, W.R., Bradley, B.A., Estes, L.D., Hole, D.G., Oppenheimer, M.G. & Wilcove, D.S. (2010) Climate change: helping nature survive the human response. Conservation Letters, 3, 304–312.

Future Directions:

They believe their work will identify areas that may need additional protection in the wake of climate change, as well as areas that may become available for restoration to a more natural condition. This work is being done in collaboration with Conservation International, which provides a mechanism for bringing our findings to the attention of decision-makers in South Africa.

Participating Department

Collaborating Institutions

Related Media and Press Coverage


Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton Environmental Institute, Woodrow Wilson School

Research Associates

  • Bethany Bradley
  • Lyndon Estes
  • Will Turner

Undergraduate Students

  • Bennett Bernstein ’13
  • Nicole Bornkamp ’14
  • Colleen Driscoll ’11
  • Michelle Lau ’12
  • Iulia Neagu ’13