An unexpectedly large count of trees in the West African Sahara and Sahel

A large proportion of dryland trees and shrubs (hereafter referred to collectively as trees) grow in isolation, without canopy closure. These non-forest trees have a crucial role in biodiversity, and provide ecosystem services such as carbon storage, food resources and shelter for humans and animals. However, most public interest relating to trees is devoted to forests, and trees outside of forests are not well-documented.

In this study, Martin Brandt et al., mapped the crown size of each tree more than 3 square metre in size over a land area that spans 1.3 million square kilometre in the West African Sahara, Sahel and sub-humid zone, using submetre-resolution satellite imagery and deep learning. They detected over 1.8 billion individual trees (13.4 trees per hectare), with a median crown size of 12 m, along a rainfall gradient from 0 to 1,000 mm per year. The canopy cover increases from 0.1% (0.7 trees per hectare) in hyper-arid areas, through 1.6% (9.9 trees per hectare) in arid and 5.6% (30.1 trees per hectare) in semi-arid zones, to 13.3% (47 trees per hectare) in sub-humid areas. Although the overall canopy cover is low, the relatively high density of isolated trees challenges prevailing narratives about dryland desertification, and even the desert shows a surprisingly high tree density. Their assessment suggests a way to monitor trees outside of forests globally, and to explore their role in mitigating degradation, climate change and poverty.

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