Large-scale vegetation feedbacks on a doubled CO2 climate

Samuel Levis, Jonathan A. Foley, David Pollard

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146 Scopus citations


Changes in vegetation cover are known to influence the climate system by modifying the radiative, momentum, and hydrologic balance of the land surface. To explore the interactions between terrestrial vegetation and the atmosphere for doubled atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the newly developed fully coupled GENESIS-IBIS climate-vegetation model is used. The simulated climatic response to the radiative and physiological effects of elevated CO2 concentrations, as well as to ensuing simulated shifts in global vegetation patterns is investigated. The radiative effects of elevated CO2 concentrations raise temperatures and intensify the hydrologic cycle on the global scale. In response, soil moisture increases in the mid- and high latitudes by 4% and 5%, respectively. Tropical soil moisture, however, decreases by 5% due to a decrease in precipitation minus evapotranspiration. The direct, physiological response of plants to elevated CO2 generally acts to weaken the earth's hydrologic cycle by lowering transpiration rates across the globe. Lowering transpiration alone would tend to enhance soil moisture. However, reduced recirculation of water in the atmosphere, which lowers precipitation, leads to more arid conditions overall (simulated global soil moisture decreases by 1%), particularly in the Tropics and mid-latitudes. Allowing structural changes in the vegetation cover (in response to changes in climate and CO2 concentrations) overrides the direct physiological effects of CO2 on vegetation in many regions. For example, increased simulated forest cover in the Tropics enhances canopy evapotranspiration overall, offsetting the decreased transpiration due to lower leaf conductance. As a result of increased circulation of moisture through the hydrologic cycle, precipitation increases and soil moisture returns to the value simulated with just the radiative effects of elevated CO2. However, in the highly continental midlatitudes, changes in vegetation cover cause soil moisture to decline by an additional 2%. Here, precipitation does not respond sufficiently to increased plant-water uptake, due to a limited source of external moisture into the region. These results illustrate that vegetation feedbacks may operate differently according to regional characteristics of the climate and vegetation cover. In particular, it is found that CO2 fertilization can cause either an increase or a decrease in available soil moisture, depending on the associated changes in vegetation cover and the ability of the regional climate to recirculate water vapor. This is in direct contrast to the view that CO2 fertilization will enhance soil moisture and runoff across the globe: a view that neglects changes in vegetation structure and local climatic feedbacks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1313-1325
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number7
StatePublished - Apr 1 2000

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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