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Observations of increased tropical rainfall preceded by air passage over forests

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 30 January 2013

This article has been updated

Abstract

Vegetation affects precipitation patterns by mediating moisture, energy and trace-gas fluxes between the surface and atmosphere1. When forests are replaced by pasture or crops, evapotranspiration of moisture from soil and vegetation is often diminished, leading to reduced atmospheric humidity and potentially suppressing precipitation2,3. Climate models predict that large-scale tropical deforestation causes reduced regional precipitation4,5,6,7,8,9,10, although the magnitude of the effect is model9,11 and resolution8 dependent. In contrast, observational studies have linked deforestation to increased precipitation locally12,13,14 but have been unable to explore the impact of large-scale deforestation. Here we use satellite remote-sensing data of tropical precipitation and vegetation, combined with simulated atmospheric transport patterns, to assess the pan-tropical effect of forests on tropical rainfall. We find that for more than 60 per cent of the tropical land surface (latitudes 30 degrees south to 30 degrees north), air that has passed over extensive vegetation in the preceding few days produces at least twice as much rain as air that has passed over little vegetation. We demonstrate that this empirical correlation is consistent with evapotranspiration maintaining atmospheric moisture in air that passes over extensive vegetation. We combine these empirical relationships with current trends of Amazonian deforestation to estimate reductions of 12 and 21 per cent in wet-season and dry-season precipitation respectively across the Amazon basin by 2050, due to less-efficient moisture recycling. Our observation-based results complement similar estimates from climate models4,5,6,7,8,9,10, in which the physical mechanisms and feedbacks at work could be explored in more detail.

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Figure 1: Annual (2001–2007) mean vegetation, precipitation and evaporation.
Figure 2: Relationships between daily precipitation and cumulative exposure of 10-d back-trajectories to vegetation LAI ( LAI) for 2001–2007.
Figure 3: Atmospheric water-budget components along back-trajectories.
Figure 4: Simulated percentage change in precipitation due to 2000–2050 business-as-usual deforestation of the Amazon basin.

Change history

  • 12 September 2012

    Units in Fig. 1c and colour bar values in Fig. 4b were corrected.

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Acknowledgements

D.V.S. acknowledges a Natural Environment Research Council grant (NE/G015015/1). The GLDAS data used in this study were acquired as part of the mission of NASA’s Earth Science Division and were archived and distributed by the Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center.

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D.V.S. and S.R.A. initiated the project. All authors participated in discussions, conducted the analysis, assisted with data interpretation and wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to D. V. Spracklen.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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This file contains Supplementary Tables 1-2 and Supplementary Figures 1-9. (PDF 555 kb)

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Spracklen, D., Arnold, S. & Taylor, C. Observations of increased tropical rainfall preceded by air passage over forests. Nature 489, 282–285 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11390

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