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Climate mitigation from vegetation biophysical feedbacks during the past three decades


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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Figure 1: ΔLAI-induced trends in annual average land-surface air temperature (Ta).
Figure 2: Patterns of LAI trend and ΔLAI-induced trends in land-surface air temperature (Ta).
Figure 3: Sensitivities of evapotranspiration (E) and surface albedo (α) to LAI and ΔLAI-induced trends in land-surface air temperature (Ta) calibrated with the observed sensitivities.


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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.

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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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shilong Piao.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Zeng, Z., Piao, S., Li, L. et al. Climate mitigation from vegetation biophysical feedbacks during the past three decades. Nature Clim Change 7, 432–436 (2017).

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