Interactions between climate, fire and CO2 are believed to play a crucial role in controlling the distributions of tropical woodlands and savannas, but our understanding of these processes is limited by the paucity of data from undisturbed tropical ecosystems. Here we use a 28,000-year integrated record of vegetation, climate and fire from West Africa to examine the role of these interactions on tropical ecosystem stability. We find that increased aridity between 28-15 kyr B.P. led to the widespread expansion of tropical grasslands, but that frequent fires and low CO2 played a crucial role in stabilizing these ecosystems, even as humidity changed. This resulted in an unstable ecosystem state, which transitioned abruptly from grassland to woodlands as gradual changes in CO2 and fire shifted the balance in favor of woody plants. Since then, high atmospheric CO2 has stabilized tropical forests by promoting woody plant growth, despite increased aridity. Our results indicate that the interactions between climate, CO2 and fire can make tropical ecosystems more resilient to change, but that these systems are dynamically unstable and potentially susceptible to abrupt shifts between woodland and grassland dominated states in the future.
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