Monday, April 22

Happy Earth Day! Expect surprises!

"Global vegetation and climate are linked in both directions: when climate changes, so will vegetation, and when vegetation changes, so will the climate. These links are more important, more complex, and more poorly characterised than most people realise."

Fear not, even if you only understand 10 percent of Sheil's paper, 10 percent is better than 100 percent understanding of the 'greenhouse gases' explanation of climate change.  

Forests, atmospheric water and an uncertain future: the new biology of the global water cycle
By Douglas Sheil
20 March 2018

Forest Ecosystems journal via Springer Link

Theory and evidence indicate that trees and other vegetation influence the atmospheric water-cycle in various ways. These influences are more important, more complex, and more poorly characterised than is widely realised. While there is little doubt that changes in tree cover will impact the water-cycle, the wider consequences remain difficult to predict as the underlying relationships and processes remain poorly characterised. Nonetheless, as forests are vulnerable to human activities, these linked aspects of the water-cycle are also at risk and the potential consequences of large scale forest loss are severe. 
Here, for non-specialist readers, I review our knowledge of the links between vegetation-cover and climate with a focus on forests and rain (precipitation). I highlight advances, uncertainties and research opportunities. 
There are significant shortcomings in our understanding of the atmospheric hydrological cycle and of its representation in climate models. A better understanding of the role of vegetation and tree-cover will reduce some of these shortcomings. I outline and illustrate various research themes where these advances may be found. These themes include the biology of evaporation, aerosols and atmospheric motion, as well as the processes that determine monsoons and diurnal precipitation cycles. 
A novel theory—the ‘biotic pump’—suggests that evaporation and condensation can exert a major influence over atmospheric dynamics. This theory explains how high rainfall can be maintained within those continental land-masses that are sufficiently forested. Feedbacks within many of these processes can result in non-linear behaviours and the potential for dramatic changes as a result of forest loss (or gain): for example, switching from a wet to a dry local climate (or vice versa). Much remains unknown and multiple research disciplines are needed to address this: forest scientists and other biologists have a major role to play. New ideas, methods and data offer opportunities to improve understanding. Expect surprises.
Introduction and background
The availability of water determines where life, including people, can occur and is in turn influenced by such life—again including people. Increasing human populations and improving living standards are impacting the earth’s surface (Godfray et al. ; Sayer et al. ). Over one third of the Earth’s ice-free land comprises agriculture, pasture and urbanisation (Ramankutty et al. ). 
One and a half million square kilometres of dense tree-cover were lost between 2000 and 2012 (gross 2.3 million lost and 0.8 million gained, Hansen et al. ). At the same time, evaluations indicate major increases in people with impeded access to fresh water and also in those exposed to floods (e.g., Arnell et al. ). For those confronting these issues, a concern is whether we know enough to understand, predict, and address how land cover influences water availability.
Water vapour comprises one quarter of 1 % of the mass of the atmosphere—equivalent to just two and half centimetres of liquid over the entire Earth (atmospheric water in the form of liquid droplets and ice adds less than one hundredth to this miniscule total). The behaviour of this atmospheric water nonetheless governs water availability on land. Terrestrial life, including human life, depends on and impacts this availability. Understanding these links and vulnerabilities is vital if we want to avoid the water scarcity, droughts and floods that may otherwise result from changing land cover.
Global vegetation and climate are linked in both directions: when climate changes, so will vegetation, and when vegetation changes, so will the climate. These links are more important, more complex, and more poorly characterised than most people realise.
Water availability raises more tangible concerns for most people than do temperature and carbon. In any case, those concerned with temperature recognise 
1) that around half the solar energy that falls on land is converted into the evaporation of water thus cooling the land surface (Pokorny et al. ; Wang and Dickinson ), 
2) that water vapour is the dominant greenhouse gas on our planet (Ravishankara ; Sherwood et al. ) and
3) that the distribution of clouds and snow cover exert a major influence on planetary albedo (the proportion of incident light reflected back into space) and energy balance (Donohoe and Battisti ; He et al. ). 
Those concerned with carbon recognise that water is the most limiting factor for terrestrial ecosystem carbon uptake, and that uncertainties over water imply uncertainties over biomass and carbon fixation (Polis ; Good et al. ; Bernacchi and VanLoocke ; Thorley et al. ; Viglizzo et al. ; Taylor et al. ; Zhu et al. ). 
Furthermore, those concerned with environmental conservation, stability and the maintenance of species diversity recognise both the significance of freshwater biodiversity (supporting over 126,000 species of plants and animals, many of them vulnerable, on 0.8% of the world’s surface, Garcia-Moreno et al. ) and the links between terrestrial diversity and moisture (Kreft and Jetz ; Sheil et al. ; Viglizzo et al. ).

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