Feature

Text Size

Tropical Deforestation Affects Rainfall in the U.S. and Around the Globe
09.13.05
 
Today, scientists estimate that between one-third and one-half of our planet's land surfaces have been transformed by human development.

A MODIS image revealing the widespread deforestation, light green and brownish areas,  taking place near Mato Grosso, Brazil. Image to right: Deforestation by Satellite: This image, taken April 21, 2002 by the Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) flying aboard NASA's Terra satellite reveals the widespread deforestation (light green and brownish areas) taking place near Mato Grosso, Brazil. Red dots show the locations of actively burning fires. Click on image to enlarge. Credit: NASA/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team

Now, a new study is offering insight into the long-term impacts of these changes, particularly the effects of large-scale deforestation in tropical regions on the global climate. Researchers from Duke University, Durham, N.C., analyzed multiple years of data using the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies general circulation computer model (GCM) and Global Precipitation Climatology Project (GPCP) to produce several climate simulations. Their research found that deforestation in different areas of the globe affects rainfall patterns over a considerable region.

This finding contradicts earlier research suggesting deforestation would result in a reduction in precipitation and increase in temperature in the Amazon basin, but carry no detectable impact on the global water cycle.

Global land-cover map emphasizing with red rectangles the three regions in which all tropical forests (green color) are replaced with a mixture of shrubs and grassland in the study. Image to left: Global Land Cover Map: Global land-cover map (1-kilometer or 3/5ths of a mile resolution), emphasizing with red rectangles the three regions in which all tropical forests (green color) are replaced with a mixture of shrubs and grassland in the study. Click on image to enlarge. Credit: NASA-GISS and Duke University

"Our study carried somewhat surprising results, showing that although the major impact of deforestation on precipitation is found in and near the deforested regions, it also has a strong influence on rainfall in the mid and even high latitudes," said Roni Avissar, lead author of the new study, published in the April 2005 issue of the Journal of Hydrometeorology.

Specifically, deforestation of Amazonia was found to severely reduce rainfall in the Gulf of Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico during the spring and summer seasons when water is crucial for agricultural productivity. Deforestation of Central Africa has a similar effect, causing a significant precipitation decrease in the lower U.S Midwest during the spring and summer and in the upper U.S. Midwest in winter and spring. Deforestation in Southeast Asia alters rainfall in China and the Balkan Peninsula most significantly.

This picture of a giraffe coming through trees was taken of the Skukuza area during NASA's SAFARI 2000 field mission, just prior to the African monsoon season. Image to right: Deforestation Affects Animal Habitats: This picture of a giraffe coming through trees was taken of the Skukuza area during NASA's SAFARI 2000 field mission, just prior to the African monsoon season. Click on image to enlarge. Credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory DAAC/Colorado State University

Elimination of any of these tropical forests, Amazonia, Central Africa, or Southeast Asia, considerably enhances rainfall in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. However, the combined effect of deforestation in all three regions shifts the greatest precipitation decline in the U.S. to California during the winter season and further increases rainfall in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

"Deforestation does not appear to modify the global average of precipitation, but it changes precipitation patterns and distributions by affecting the amount of both sensible heat and that released into the atmosphere when water vapor condenses, called latent heat," said Avissar. "Associated changes in air pressure distribution shift the typical global circulation patterns, sending storm systems off their typical paths."

Clearly, land-cover changes in tropical regions carry potentially significant consequences on water resources, wildfire frequency, agriculture and related activities at various remote locations. And while greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants receive considerable attention, this study shows that land-cover change is another important parameter that needs to be considered in climate policies, especially since deforestation rates in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America have remained constant or have increased over the past two decades. Land-cover change, depending on its nature, can either mitigate or exacerbate greenhouse warming.

The researchers caution that their results are based on numerical simulations performed with a single general circulation model and that reproducing the experiment with other computer models using different atmospheric variables would be beneficial.

 
 
Mike Bettwy
Goddard Space Flight Center