Coupling dynamic models of climate and vegetation

Jonathan A. Foley, Samuel Levis, I. Colin Prentice, David Pollard, Starley L. Thompson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

224 Scopus citations


Numerous studies have underscored the importance of terrestrial ecosystems as an integral component of the Earth's climate system. This realization has already led to efforts to link simple equilibrium vegetation models with Atmospheric General Circulation Models through iterative coupling procedures. While these linked models have pointed to several possible climate-vegetation feedback mechanisms, they have been limited by two shortcomings: (i) they only consider the equilibrium response of vegetation to shifting climatic conditions and therefore cannot be used to explore transient interactions between climate and vegetation; and (ii) the representations of vegetation processes and land-atmosphere exchange processes are still treated by two separate models and, as a result, may contain physical or ecological inconsistencies. Here we present, as a proof concept, a more tightly integrated framework for simulating global climate and vegetation interactions. The prototype coupled model consists of the GENESIS (version 2) Atmospheric General Circulation Model and the IBIS (version 1) Dynamic Global Vegetation Model. The two models are directly coupled through a common treatment of land surface and ecophysiological processes, which is used to calculate the energy, water, carbon, and momentum fluxes between vegetation, soils, and the atmosphere. On one side of the interface, GENESIS simulates the physics and general circulation of the atmosphere. On the other side, IBIS predicts transient changes in the vegetation structure through changes in the carbon balance and competition among plants within terrestrial ecosystems. As an initial test of this modelling framework, we perform a 30 year simulation in which the coupled model is supplied with modern CO2 concentrations, observed ocean temperatures, and modern insolation. In this exploratory study, we run the GENESIS atmospheric model at relatively coarse horizontal resolutioin (4.5° latitude by 7.5° longitude) and IBIS at moderate resolution (2° latitude by 2° longitude). We initialize the models with globally uniform climatic conditions and the modern distribution of potential vegetation cover. While the simulation does not fully reach equilibrium by the end of the run, several general features of the coupled model behaviour emerge. We compare the results of the coupled model against the observed patterns of modern climate. The model correctly simulates the basic zonal distribution of temperature and precipitation, but several important regional biases remain. In particular, there is a significant warm bias in the high northern latitudes, and cooler than observed conditions over the Himalayas, central South America, and north-central Africa. In terms of precipitation, the model simulates drier than observed conditions in much of South America, equatorial Africa and Indonesia, with wetter than observed conditions in northern Africa and China. Comparing the model results against observed patterns of vegetation cover shows that the general placement of forests and grasslands is roughly captured by the model. In addition, the model simulates a roughly correct separation of evergreen and deciduous forests in the tropical, temperate and boreal zones. However, the general patterns of global vegetation cover are only approximately correct: there are still significant regional biases in the simulation. In particular, forest cover is not simulated correctly in large portions of central Canada and southern South America, and grasslands extend too far into northern Africa. These preliminary results demonstrate the feasibility of coupling climate models with fully dynamic representations of the terrestrial biosphere. Continued development of fully coupled climate-vegetation models will facilitate the exploration of a broad range of global change issues, including the potential role of vegetation feedbacks within the climate system, and the impact of climate variability and transient climate change on the terrestrial biosphere.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)561-579
Number of pages19
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jun 1998

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • General Environmental Science


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