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Observed increase in local cooling effect of deforestation at higher latitudes


Deforestation in mid- to high latitudes is hypothesized to have the potential to cool the Earth’s surface by altering biophysical processes1,2,3. In climate models of continental-scale land clearing, the cooling is triggered by increases in surface albedo and is reinforced by a land albedo–sea ice feedback4,5. This feedback is crucial in the model predictions; without it other biophysical processes may overwhelm the albedo effect to generate warming instead5. Ongoing land-use activities, such as land management for climate mitigation, are occurring at local scales (hectares) presumably too small to generate the feedback, and it is not known whether the intrinsic biophysical mechanism on its own can change the surface temperature in a consistent manner6,7. Nor has the effect of deforestation on climate been demonstrated over large areas from direct observations. Here we show that surface air temperature is lower in open land than in nearby forested land. The effect is 0.85 ± 0.44 K (mean ± one standard deviation) northwards of 45° N and 0.21 ± 0.53 K southwards. Below 35° N there is weak evidence that deforestation leads to warming. Results are based on comparisons of temperature at forested eddy covariance towers in the USA and Canada and, as a proxy for small areas of cleared land, nearby surface weather stations. Night-time temperature changes unrelated to changes in surface albedo are an important contributor to the overall cooling effect. The observed latitudinal dependence is consistent with theoretical expectation of changes in energy loss from convection and radiation across latitudes in both the daytime and night-time phase of the diurnal cycle, the latter of which remains uncertain in climate models8.

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Figure 1: Annual mean difference (open land minus forest) in surface air temperature.
Figure 2: Seasonal and diurnal patterns of surface air temperature.
Figure 3: Partition of the biophysical effect at six FLUXNET site clusters in four different climate zones.
Figure 4

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The data collection and analysis were supported in part by grants from the US Department of Energy and by a Yale University Climate and Energy Institute grant. We thank D. Fitzjarrald and R. Sakai for providing the data for the KM77 tropical site and C. von Randow for providing the friction velocity data for FLUXNET cluster e.

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Authors and Affiliations



X.L. developed the energy balance model, carried out the analysis and wrote the manuscript, M.L.G. and D.Y.H. contributed ideas to data analysis, M.L.G., D.Y.H., T.A.B., G.B., L.G., G.K., T.K., B.E.L., H.M., T.M., W.M., R.O., A.D.R., R.S. and S.W. contributed ideas to manuscript development, M.L.G., D.Y.H., A.B., T.A.B., G.B., R.B., B.D., A.G., L.G., G.K., T.K., B.E.L., X.L., H.M., T.M., R.M., W.M., R.O., K.T.P.U, A.D.R., H.P.S., R.S. and S.W. contributed data, and L.Z. performed the NARR data analysis.

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Correspondence to Xuhui Lee.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

The file contains Supplementary Text and Data, Supplementary References, Supplementary Tables 1-3 and Supplementary Figures 1-4 with legends. (PDF 445 kb)

Supplementary Data 1

This file comprises: 1 Comparison between weather station and NARR screen height temperature (annual mean, Jan mean and July mean) in NARR cells in closest proximity to the station lat/long; 2 NARR diurnal temperature range for NARR cells in closest proximity to forest eddy covariance sites; 3 Summary of temperature statistics for forests and the closest matching weather stations & summary of net radiation data for the forest sites; 4 Year-by-year summary of temperature statistics for each forest/station pair; 5 Year-by-year NARR temperature data at NARR grid matching the paired weather station; 6 Data used for energy balance / factor separation analysis; 7 Data used for analysis of sensitivity to heat storage, FLUXNET cluster a. (XLS 277 kb)

Supplementary Data 2

The file contains monthly temperature data for the site pairs including lapse rates derived from NARR. (TXT 29 kb)

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Lee, X., Goulden, M., Hollinger, D. et al. Observed increase in local cooling effect of deforestation at higher latitudes. Nature 479, 384–387 (2011).

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