Climate Change and Termites

We see evidence of climate change all around us; glaciers are melting at an exceedingly fast rate, sea levels are beginning to rise because of this melt, and the future of agriculture lies in the balance, as land and vegetation change will soon determine agricultural success in a certain area. These effects are coupled with the need to understand exactly where and how drastically climate change will alter a specific region. Along these lines, there’s a new way of foretelling climate change: termites.

In a recent article by Science Daily, termites are cited to be able to foretell climate change in the African savanna region. Funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation (the same Foundation that generously supports the Shi Center’s Mellon Fellowships), the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology has conducted studies in which tens of thousands of termite mounds in the African savanna have been mapped to determine their size and distribution throughout the region.

The size and distribution of the termite mounds are significant, as they are closely linked to the surrounding vegetation patterns which are determined by the amount of rain received in the region each year. Using LiDAR (light detection and ranging) systems (which was really cool for me to read about in the first place as I’m currently taking a Remote Sensing course), both the vegetation and termite mounds are able to be tracked throughout three zones of varying hydrologic degrees: the dry zone, the intermediate zone, and the wet zone. The type of vegetation (grassy or woody) changes as one enters a different zone,  as does the number of termites found. By observing these patterns and fluctuations, scientists can pretty accurately predict the extent to which climate change will alter the landscape in this area, as rainfall patterns change over time and the make-up of the entire savanna region is affected.

The changing size and distribution of termite mounds in the African savanna is just one indication of climate change. It will be interesting to observe what other changes occur as a result of the impending variation in our climate.

To read the full article on termites foretelling climate change in the African savanna, go to

Carnegie Institution. “Termites Foretell Climate Change in Africa’s Savannas.” ScienceDaily 8 September 2010. 9 September 2010 <­ /releases/2010/09/100907113038.htm>.

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