Offset of the potential carbon sink from boreal forestation by decreases in surface albedo

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Carbon uptake by forestation is one method proposed1 to reduce net carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere and so limit the radiative forcing of climate change2. But the overall impact of forestation on climate will also depend on other effects associated with the creation of new forests. In particular, the albedo of a forested landscape is generally lower than that of cultivated land, especially when snow is lying3,4,5,6,7,8,9, and decreasing albedo exerts a positive radiative forcing on climate. Here I simulate the radiative forcings associated with changes in surface albedo as a result of forestation in temperate and boreal forest areas, and translate these forcings into equivalent changes in local carbon stock for comparison with estimated carbon sequestration potentials10,11,12. I suggest that in many boreal forest areas, the positive forcing induced by decreases in albedo can offset the negative forcing that is expected from carbon sequestration. Some high-latitude forestation activities may therefore increase climate change, rather than mitigating it as intended.

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Figure 1: Effects of forestation on the solar radiation budget.
Figure 2: Effects of albedo change on annual-mean global radiative forcing in terms of carbon stock change.


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I thank S.E. Lee and F.I. Woodward for providing data from the Sheffield University vegetation model, and P.M. Cox, J.M. Edwards, R.L.H. Essery, W.J. Ingram, G.J. Jenkins, J.E. Lovelock, S. Nilsson, I.C. Prentice, P.R. Rowntree, K.P. Shine, P.J. Valdes and D.A. Warrilow for advice, comments and discussion. This work forms part of the Climate Prediction Programme of the UK Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

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Correspondence to Richard A. Betts.

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