Canopy of lowland rainforest at dawn with dense fog.

Tropical forests create cloud cover that reflects sunlight and cools the air.Credit: Thomas Marent/Minden Pictures

Tropical forests have a crucial role in cooling Earth’s surface by extracting carbon dioxide from the air. But only two-thirds of their cooling power comes from their ability to suck in CO2 and store it, according to a study1. The other one-third comes from their ability to create clouds, humidify the air and release cooling chemicals.

This is a larger contribution than expected for these ‘biophysical effects’ says Bronson Griscom, a forest climate scientist at the non-profit environmental organization Conservation International, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. “For a while now, we’ve assumed that carbon dioxide alone is telling us essentially all we need to know about forest–climate interactions,” he says. But this study confirms that tropical forests have other significant ways of plugging into the climate system, he says.

The analysis, published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change on 24 March1, could enable scientists to improve their climate models, while helping governments to devise better conservation and climate strategies.

The findings underscore growing concerns about rampant deforestation across the tropics. Scientists warn that one-third of the world’s tropical forests have been mown down in the past few centuries, and another one-third has been degraded by logging and development. This, when combined with climate change, could transform vast swathes of forest into grasslands2.

“This study gives us even more reasons why tropical deforestation is bad for the climate,” says Nancy Harris, forest-research director at the World Resources Institute in Washington DC.

More than a carbon sponge

Forests are major players in the global carbon cycle because they soak up CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow. Tropical forests, in particular, store around one-quarter of all terrestrial carbon on the planet, making them “centrepieces for climate policy” in their home countries, Griscom says.

“There’s clear evidence that the tropics are producing excellent climate benefits for the entire planet,” says Deborah Lawrence, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and a co-author of the latest study. She and her colleagues analysed the cooling capacity of forests around the globe, in particular considering biophysical effects alongside carbon storage. Tropical forests, they found, can cool Earth by a whole 1 °C — and biophysical effects contribute significantly.

Although scientists knew about these effects, they hadn’t understood to what extent the various factors counter global warming.

Trees in the tropics provide shade, but they also act as giant humidifiers by pulling water from the ground and emitting it from their leaves, which helps to cool the surrounding area in a way similar to sweating, Griscom says.

“If you go into a forest, it immediately is a considerably cooler environment,” he says.

This transpiration, in turn, creates the right conditions for clouds, which like snow and ice in the Arctic, can reflect sunlight higher into the atmosphere and further cool the surroundings. Trees also release organic compounds — for example, pine-scented terpenes — that react with other chemicals in the atmosphere to sometimes create a net cooling effect.

Locally cool

To quantify these effects, Lawrence and her colleagues compared how the various effects of forests around the world feed into the climate system, breaking down their contributions in bands of ten degrees of latitude. When they considered only the biophysical effects, the researchers found that the world’s forests collectively cool the surface of the planet by around 0.5 °C.

Tropical forests are responsible for most of that cooling. But this band of trees across Latin America, Central Africa and southeast Asia is under increasing pressure from climate change and deforestation. Both of these human-caused impacts can lead rainforests to dry out, says Christopher Boulton, a geographer at the University of Exeter, UK. Last month, he and his colleagues published a review2 of nearly 30 years’ worth of satellite images of the Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world. By measuring the biomass of the vegetation in the images, the team discovered that three-quarters of the Amazon is losing resilience — the ability to recover from an extreme weather event such as a drought.

Threats to tropical rainforests are dangerous not only for the global climate, but also for communities that neighbour the forests, Lawrence says. She and her colleagues found that the cooling caused by biophysical effects was especially significant locally. Having a rainforest nearby can help to protect an area’s agriculture and cities from heatwaves, Lawrence says. “Every tenth of a degree matters in limiting extreme weather. And where you have forests, the extremes are minimized.”

Governments across the tropics have struggled to conserve their forests despite more than two decades of global campaigns to halt deforestation, promote sustainable development and protect the climate. Lawrence says that her team’s findings make it clear that protecting forests is a matter of self-interest, and has immediate benefits for local communities.