Abstract

The surface air temperature response to vegetation changes has been studied for the extreme case of land-cover change1,2,3,4,5; yet, it has never been quantified for the slow but persistent increase in leaf area index (LAI) observed over the past 30 years (Earth greening)6,7. Here we isolate the fingerprint of increasing LAI on surface air temperature using a coupled land–atmosphere global climate model prescribed with satellite LAI observations. We find that the global greening has slowed down the rise in global land-surface air temperature by 0.09 ± 0.02 °C since 1982. This net cooling effect is the sum of cooling from increased evapotranspiration (70%), changed atmospheric circulation (44%), decreased shortwave transmissivity (21%), and warming from increased longwave air emissivity (−29%) and decreased albedo (−6%). The global cooling originated from the regions where LAI has increased, including boreal Eurasia, Europe, India, northwest Amazonia, and the Sahel. Increasing LAI did not, however, significantly change surface air temperature in eastern North America and East Asia, where the effects of large-scale atmospheric circulation changes mask local vegetation feedbacks. Overall, the sum of biophysical feedbacks related to the greening of the Earth mitigated 12% of global land-surface warming for the past 30 years.

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Acknowledgements

This study was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41530528 and 41561134016), National Youth Top-notch Talent Support Program in China, and the 111 Project (B14001). We thank the National Supercomputer Center in Tianjin, China (NSCC-TJ), the National Computer Center IDRIS of CNRS in France, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States for providing computing resources. J.M. is supported by the Biogeochemistry-Climate Feedbacks Scientific Focus Area project and the project under contract of DE-SC0012534 funded through the Regional and Global Climate Modeling Program, and the Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Scientific Focus Area project funded through the Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program in the Climate and Environmental Sciences Division (CESD) of the Biological and Environmental Research (BER) Program in the US Department of Energy Office of Science. X.S. is supported by the Accelerated Climate Modeling for Energy project funded through the Earth System Modeling Program in the CESD of the BER Program in the US Department of Energy Office of Science. This research used the resources of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is supported by the Office of Science of the US Department of Energy under Contact No. DE-AC05-00OR22725.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Sino-French Institute for Earth System Science, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China

    • Zhenzhong Zeng
    • , Shilong Piao
    • , Yue Li
    • , Xu Lian
    •  & Shushi Peng
  2. Key Laboratory of Alpine Ecology and Biodiversity, Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100085, China

    • Shilong Piao
    •  & Tao Wang
  3. Center for Excellence in Tibetan Earth Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100085, China

    • Shilong Piao
    •  & Tao Wang
  4. Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Sorbonne Universités, UPMC Univ Paris 06, 75252 Paris, France

    • Laurent Z. X. Li
  5. Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, New York 12222, USA

    • Liming Zhou
  6. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, UMR 1572 CEA-CNRS-UVSQ, 91191 Gif-sur-Yvette, France

    • Philippe Ciais
  7. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08542, USA

    • Eric F. Wood
    •  & Lyndon D. Estes
  8. College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4QF, UK

    • Pierre Friedlingstein
  9. Environmental Sciences Division and Climate Change Science Institute, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37831, USA

    • Jiafu Mao
    •  & Xiaoying Shi
  10. Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08542, USA

    • Lyndon D. Estes
  11. Graduate School of Geography, Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts 01610, USA

    • Lyndon D. Estes
  12. Department of Earth and Environment, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA

    • Ranga B. Myneni
  13. Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zurich, 8057 Zurich, Switzerland

    • Sonia I. Seneviratne
  14. CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, PMB #1, Aspendale, Victoria 3195, Australia

    • Yingping Wang

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Contributions

S.Piao, L.Z.X.L. and Z.Z. designed the research; Z.Z., L.Z.X.L., Y.L., X.S. and J.M. performed the simulations; Z.Z. performed analysis; Z.Z. and S.Piao wrote the draft; and all the authors contributed to the interpretation of the results and the writing of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shilong Piao.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3299

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