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The impact of global land-cover change on the terrestrial water cycle

Abstract

Floods and droughts cause perhaps the most human suffering of all climate-related events; a major goal is to understand how humans alter the incidence and severity of these events by changing the terrestrial water cycle. Here we use over 1,500 estimates of annual evapotranspiration and a database of global land-cover change1 to project alterations of global scale terrestrial evapotranspiration (TET) from current anthropogenic land-cover change. Geographic modelling reveals that land-cover change reduces annual TET by approximately 3,500 km3 yr−1 (5%) and that the largest changes in evapotranspiration are associated with wetlands and reservoirs. Land surface model simulations support these evapotranspiration changes, and project increased runoff (7.6%) as a result of land-cover changes. Next we create a synthesis of the major anthropogenic impacts on annual runoff and find that the net result is an increase in annual runoff, although this is uncertain. The results demonstrate that land-cover change alters annual global runoff to a similar or greater extent than other major drivers, affirming the important role of land-cover change in the Earth System2,3,4. Last, we identify which major anthropogenic drivers to runoff change have a mean global change statistic that masks large regional increases and decreases: land-cover change, changes in meteorological forcing, and direct CO2 effects on plants.

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Figure 1: The impact of land-cover change on global ET.
Figure 2: Major human impacts to global annual runoff.
Figure 3: Effects of individual types of land-cover conversions on annual ET.

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the generous contributions of ET data from scientists around the world. We thank T. Ngo Duc, H. Oumer, S. Rojstaczer, W. Schlesinger, R. Jackson and M. Meybeck for helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. We thank M. Mancip and L. Bozec for technical support with the database and LSM simulations. This work was supported by the a Chateaubriand Fellowship for Scientific Research from the Office for Science and Technology of the Embassy of France in the USA, a Marie Curie Intra European Fellowship (#09949), and a Discovery Grant from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (RGPIN/387243-2011).

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S.M.S. designed the research, conducted the data analysis, and wrote the manuscript. The concepts of the land surface modelling were jointly developed and discussed by S.M.S., A.D. and J.P. A.D. assisted with the LSM data analysis. A.D. and J.P. contributed to the conception and analysis of the LSM simulation and to the paper writing. All authors gave comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Shannon M. Sterling.

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Sterling, S., Ducharne, A. & Polcher, J. The impact of global land-cover change on the terrestrial water cycle. Nature Clim Change 3, 385–390 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1690

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