Regionally strong feedbacks between the atmosphere and terrestrial biosphere

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
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Published online


The terrestrial biosphere and atmosphere interact through a series of feedback loops. Variability in terrestrial vegetation growth and phenology can modulate fluxes of water and energy to the atmosphere, and thus affect the climatic conditions that in turn regulate vegetation dynamics. Here we analyse satellite observations of solar-induced fluorescence, precipitation, and radiation using a multivariate statistical technique. We find that biosphere–atmosphere feedbacks are globally widespread and regionally strong: they explain up to 30% of precipitation and surface radiation variance in regions where feedbacks occur. Substantial biosphere–precipitation feedbacks are often found in regions that are transitional between energy and water limitation, such as semi-arid or monsoonal regions. Substantial biosphere–radiation feedbacks are often present in several moderately wet regions and in the Mediterranean, where precipitation and radiation increase vegetation growth. Enhancement of latent and sensible heat transfer from vegetation accompanies this growth, which increases boundary layer height and convection, affecting cloudiness, and consequently incident surface radiation. Enhanced evapotranspiration can increase moist convection, leading to increased precipitation. Earth system models underestimate these precipitation and radiation feedbacks mainly because they underestimate the biosphere response to radiation and water availability. We conclude that biosphere–atmosphere feedbacks cluster in specific climatic regions that help determine the net CO2 balance of the biosphere.

At a glance


  1. Atmospheric forcings and biospheric forcings.
    Figure 1: Atmospheric forcings and biospheric forcings.

    ad, X right arrow Y represents the fraction of variance of Y explained by X, for the atmospheric forcing (atmosphere right arrow biosphere) (a,c), and biospheric forcing (biosphere right arrow atmosphere) (b,d). The signs of the fractions in a and b show whether the atmospheric variable increases (positive) or decreases (negative) the biosphere flux, whereas in c and d they show whether the biosphere increases or decreases the atmospheric response. Oceans and regions where SIF partial correlations are less than 0.1 are shown in white. Pixels without significance are shown in grey (p-value < 0.1).

  2. Hotspots of terrestrial biosphere-atmosphere feedbacks.
    Figure 2: Hotspots of terrestrial biosphere–atmosphere feedbacks.

    a,b, The fraction of biosphere–atmosphere coupling variance explained for the full-feedback loop: precipitation right arrow SIF right arrow precipitation (a) and PAR right arrow SIF right arrow PAR (b). The sign of the fraction shows whether the feedback is positive or negative. Oceans and regions where SIF partial correlations are less than 0.1 are shown in white. Pixels without significance are shown in grey (p-value < 0.1).

  3. Comparison of observational and Earth system model results.
    Figure 3: Comparison of observational and Earth system model results.

    a,b, Boxplots showing the distributions of significant observational and model results for the fractions of variance explained for the feedbacks of precipitation right arrow biosphere right arrow precipitation (a) and PAR right arrow biosphere right arrow PAR (b). Boxes are defined by the upper quartile, median and lower quartile of the data while whiskers are defined by the outliers. Only significant pixels are represented (p-value < 0.1).


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Author information


  1. Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA

    • Julia K. Green,
    • Alexandra G. Konings,
    • Seyed Hamed Alemohammad &
    • Pierre Gentine
  2. Department of Earth System Science, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Alexandra G. Konings
  3. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

    • Seyed Hamed Alemohammad &
    • Dara Entekhabi
  4. Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Joseph Berry
  5. Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

    • Dara Entekhabi
  6. Universities Space Research Association, Columbia, Maryland 21046, USA

    • Jana Kolassa
  7. Global Modeling and Assimilation Office, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland 20771, USA

    • Jana Kolassa
  8. Department of Earth, Environment and Planetary Sciences, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA

    • Jung-Eun Lee
  9. The Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA

    • Pierre Gentine


J.K.G., A.G.K. and P.G. wrote the main manuscript text. J.K.G., P.G. and S.H.A. prepared figures. S.H.A. processed the CMIP5 simulations. J.K.G., P.G. and A.G.K. designed the study. All authors reviewed and edited the manuscript.

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