Letter | Published:

Recent reversal in loss of global terrestrial biomass

Nature Climate Change volume 5, pages 470474 (2015) | Download Citation


Vegetation change plays a critical role in the Earth’s carbon (C) budget and its associated radiative forcing in response to anthropogenic and natural climate change1,2,3,4. Existing global estimates of aboveground biomass carbon (ABC) based on field survey data provide brief snapshots that are mainly limited to forest ecosystems5,6,7,8. Here we use an entirely new remote sensing approach to derive global ABC estimates for both forest and non-forest biomes during the past two decades from satellite passive microwave observations. We estimate a global average ABC of 362 PgC over the period 1998–2002, of which 65% is in forests and 17% in savannahs. Over the period 1993–2012, an estimated −0.07 PgC yr−1 ABC was lost globally, mostly resulting from the loss of tropical forests (−0.26 PgC yr−1) and net gains in mixed forests over boreal and temperate regions (+0.13 PgC yr−1) and tropical savannahs and shrublands (+0.05 PgC yr−1). Interannual ABC patterns are greatly influenced by the strong response of water-limited ecosystems to rainfall variability, particularly savannahs. From 2003 onwards, forest in Russia and China expanded and tropical deforestation declined. Increased ABC associated with wetter conditions in the savannahs of northern Australia and southern Africa reversed global ABC loss, leading to an overall gain, consistent with trends in the global carbon sink reported in recent studies1,3,9.

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Y.Y.L. is the recipient of an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellowship (project number DE140100200). J.G.C. acknowledges the support of the Australian Climate Change Science Program. M.F.M. is funded by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. G.W. is supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (numbers 41375099 and 91337108). We thank Y. Pan for helping to interpret forest inventory data and S. Saatchi for providing the aboveground biomass map for tropical regions.

Author information


  1. ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Systems Science & Climate Change Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales 2052, Australia

    • Yi Y. Liu
    •  & Jason P. Evans
  2. Water Research Centre, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales 2052, Australia

    • Yi Y. Liu
  3. Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200, Australia

    • Albert I. J. M. van Dijk
  4. CSIRO Land and Water Flagship, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 2601, Australia

    • Albert I. J. M. van Dijk
  5. Earth and Climate Cluster, Department of Earth Sciences, Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam 1081 HV, Netherlands

    • Richard A. M. de Jeu
  6. Global Carbon Project, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 2601, Australia

    • Josep G. Canadell
  7. Water Desalination and Reuse Center, Division of Biological and Environmental Sciences and Engineering, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Thuwal, 23955-6900, Saudi Arabia

    • Matthew F. McCabe
  8. School of Geography and Remote Sensing, Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology, Nanjing 210044, China

    • Guojie Wang


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All authors contributed to the development of the paper. Y.Y.L. and A.I.J.M.v.D. designed the study. R.A.M.d.J., Y.Y.L. and G.W. prepared the VOD data set. Y.Y.L. conducted the analysis and wrote the Supplementary Information. A.I.J.M.v.D. and J.G.C. summarized the results and wrote the first draft of the paper, with subsequent addition and improvement by all authors.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Yi Y. Liu.

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