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# More than carbon sequestration: Biophysical climate benefits of restored savanna woodlands

## Abstract

Deforestation and climate change are interconnected and represent major environmental challenges. Here, we explore the capacity of regional-scale restoration of marginal agricultural lands to savanna woodlands in Australia to reduce warming and drying resulting from increased concentration of greenhouse gases. We show that restoration triggers a positive feedback loop between the land surface and the atmosphere, characterised by increased evaporative fraction, eddy dissipation and turbulent mixing in the boundary-layer resulting in enhanced cloud formation and precipitation over the restored regions. The increased evapotranspiration results from the capacity deep-rooted woody vegetation to access soil moisture. As a consequence, the increase in precipitation provides additional moisture to soil and trees, thus reinforcing the positive feedback loop. Restoration reduced the rate of warming and drying under the transient increase in the radiative forcing of greenhouse gas emissions (RCP8.5). At the continental scale, average summer warming for all land areas was reduced by 0.18 oC from 4.1 oC for the period 2056–2075 compared to 1986–2005. For the restored regions (representing 20% of Australia), the averaged surface temperature increase was 3.2 °C which is 0.82 °C cooler compared to agricultural landscapes. Further, there was reduction of 12% in the summer drying of the near-surface soil for the restored regions.

## Introduction

Current rates of deforestation1,2,3 and global warming4, if unabated, will severely degrade the biosphere5. Forests are well recognised for their potential to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration6. Less attention is given to their biophysical role in the energy and water cycles, and their capacity to regulate the regional climate7,8,9,10,11. At a regional scale, forest cover influences land-surface properties, including evapotranspiration, albedo and surface roughness, which affect the magnitude and form of energy transfer to the atmosphere11,12,13,14,15. By altering the fluxes of heat, momentum and moisture exchanges between the land surface and the lower atmosphere, forests affect climate.

Empirical evidence shows that tropical and boreal forests have divergent biophysical effects due to their dominant evapotranspiration and albedo effects respectively9,10. In general, forests evaporate more water than any other vegetation type – up to 10 times more than herbaceous vegetation8. Alkama and Cescatti10, using Earth Observations of global forest cover and land surface temperatures, showed evapotranspiration is the key biophysical process impacted by deforestation. The strongest sensitivity to loss of forest and other woody vegetation cover is in arid and semi-arid regions, followed by temperate, tropical, and boreal biomes10. In the lower latitudes, forests play an important role in regulating climate at the regional scale by enhancing the partitioning of energy into latent heat, thereby impacting moisture recycling, convective precipitation and cloud formation9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18. This ability to maintain evaporative cooling of the land surface is a key biophysical process by which forests regulate the regional climate 9,10,11,12,13,14. Jackson et al.13 argue that avoided deforestation, forest restoration and afforestation in tropical regions, provides the greatest climate benefits because carbon storage19,20 and biophysics align to cool the climate.

A number of studies using climate models have investigated the potential climate impacts of reforestation and afforestation21,22,23,24,25,26. Devaraju et al.21 show the biophysical and biochemical effects of land-use changes on climate differ in their spatial (latitudinal) influence. Biophysical effects are stronger at regional scales, whereas biochemical effects have global impacts. Latitude-specific land-use change modelling by Bala et al.22 show that afforestation in the tropics would be beneficial in mitigating global-scale warming but would have an opposite impact if implemented at high latitudes. A global study by Arora and Montenegro23 of the climate impact of complete and partial (50%) afforestation of croplands resulted in a reduction of warming of 0.45 °C and 0.25 °C respectively for the period 2081–2100 under the SRES A2 emissions scenario. Warming reductions per unit of afforested area were three times higher in tropical and sub-tropical regions than in boreal and northern temperate regions23. Galos26 used a regional climate model under the SRES A2 scenario to show that afforestation reduced warming of summer temperatures by 15–20% and halved the rainfall reduction due to global warming in the mid-latitude of Central Europe. The capacity of afforestation to impact regional climate is further demonstrated by the 62 million hectares of afforestation in China (15–55°N), which reduce daytime land-surface temperatures by 1.1 ± 0.5 °C due to increased evapotranspiration27. However, the net impact on temperature is influenced by the net difference between nighttime warming and daytime cooling, with nighttime warming increasing with latitude and decreasing with rainfall.

Here we evaluate the potential climate benefits of the regional-scale restoration of savanna woodlands in Australia under a global warming scenario. We use a high-resolution climate model to better resolve the influence of the spatial heterogeneity of soils and vegetation on regional climate processes. We focus on Australia, as a representative semi-arid region with highly-transformed landscapes28 and large areas of economically marginal agricultural land29. Historically, over 15% of the Australian continent has been converted to intensive cropping and livestock pastures. Many of the converted areas occur on the less fertile soils and are impacted by highly variable rainfall29,30. As a consequence, the economic viability of many agricultural landscapes is marginal, and is likely to decrease further as the climate becomes hotter and drier31,32,33,34. Since 2000, the rate of land clearing has slowed through the implementation of vegetation management legislation; however, these regulations are being relaxed in recent years, as the Australian and state governments seek to expand agricultural production to capitalise on the global demand for food commodities. There is increased pressure to expand the agro-pastoral frontier into intact regions of Northern Australia. A recent economic analysis of future land use options for Australia shows that large areas of economically marginal agricultural lands would have better economic and environmental return if used for carbon sequestration and other related ecosystem services35,36.

## Results

### Model description

We used the stretched version of global variable resolution Conformal-Cubic Atmospheric Model (CCAM)40,41, coupled to the CSIRO Atmosphere Biosphere Land Exchange (CABLE 1.8)63,64. This variable-resolution global model with advanced dynamical core is numerically efficient and provides an attractive alternative to limited-area regional models for dynamical downscaling. Unlike regional models, CCAM is dynamically consistent globally and avoids problems with specifying lateral-boundary forcing65. CCAM is formulated on a quasi-uniform grid derived by projecting the panels of a cube onto the surface of the Earth. In this study, the model was run in stretched mode with 20 km horizontal resolution over Australia and with 27 atmospheric vertical levels and six soil levels. CCAM contains a comprehensive set of physical parameterizations as described by Thevakaran65. In CCAM, the land surface processes are represented by the CABLE biosphere land exchange model. CABLE simulates the exchange of CO2, radiation, heat, water and momentum fluxes between the land surface and atmosphere, and is composed of five main sub-models: (1) the radiation sub-model estimates the radiation transfer and absorption by both sunlit and shaded leaves and by soil surface in the visible, near infrared and thermal radiation, and also the surface albedo for visible and near infrared radiation66; (2) the surface flux sub-model estimates the coupled transpiration, stomatal conductance, photosynthesis and partitioning of net available energy between latent and sensible heat of sunlit and shaded leaves66. Photosynthesis is calculated for both C3 and C4 plants; (3) the canopy micrometeorology sub-model describes the surface roughness length, zero plane displacement height, and aerodynamic resistance from the reference height to the air within the canopy or to the soil surface67; (4) the soil and snow sub-models compute the heat and water fluxes within each of the six soil layers and three snowpack layers, snow age, snow density and snow depth, and snow covered surface albedo. Soil moisture is calculated according to the Richards’ equation and the heat conduction equation is used to obtain soil temperature63,64; and (5) the ecosystem carbon module, which estimates respiration of stem, root and soil organic carbon decomposition68.

### Experimental design

The CCAM model was used to evaluate the impact of the two contrasting climatologically-averaged land-use scenarios (Fig. 1) under transient changes in radiative forcing42,43 such as greenhouse-gas and aerosols following RCP8.5 emissions. An ensemble of three simulations for each scenario was completed for the period 2021–2076 at a 20 km spatial resolution over the Australian region. The simulations started with different initial conditions, and used bias-corrected SSTs and sea-ice cover taken from the equivalent RCP8.5 simulations with the CSIRO Mk3.6 climate model43. To contrast differences in the warming between 2056–2075 and 1986–2005 under the two contrasting land-use scenarios (Fig. 4), we used data from historical simulations with CCAM for the 1960–2005 period. The historical simulations used recent land use data, historical radiative forcing and bias-corrected sea-surface temperatures taken from the CMIP5 simulations with the CSIRO Mk3.6 global climate model43. The high-spatial resolution CCAM-CABLE model was used to improve the representation of topographic features, soil and landscape heterogeneity and regional land surface processes.

### Analysis

We used monthly output from CCAM simulations to produce multi-year climatological averages for annual and seasonal conditions for the period 2023–2076. The first two years of simulations were discarded to allow for model spin-up. Using these data, we analysed differences in the climatological response between the two simulated scenarios. In presenting the results, we focused on providing area-averaged values over all restored regions of Australia, which covered 20% of continental Australia (Fig. 2a). Regionally, we show area-averaged values over the restored regions of Queensland, southeast Australia (New South Wales-Victoria combined) and Western Australia. Results are also shown as area-averaged values for all land areas of continental Australia (excluding Tasmania). The statistical significance of the simulated differences was assessed using non-parametric bootstrap resampling69. This approach is considered to be a robust test for assessing the statistical significance of the climate modelling results. For each set of simulations, we calculated the ensemble average seasonal mean of various climate variables such as temperature, precipitation and wind speed and analysed the statistical difference using bootstrapping at 95% confidence level (P < 0.05). We compared the sensitivity of statistical tests commonly used in climate modelling experiments such as the student T-test and the Kolmogorov-Smirnov (KS-test) to the bootstrapping approach. All tests showed similar results. In our study, N = 162 (3 ensembles × 54 years of model integration), with N = 500 bootstrap samples conducted to test for statistical significance.

How to cite this article: Syktus, J. I. and McAlpine, C. A. More than carbon sequestration: Biophysical climate benefits of restored savanna woodlands. Sci. Rep. 6, 29194; doi: 10.1038/srep29194 (2016).

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## Acknowledgements

This project was funded by the Queensland Government and the Australian Research Council LP100100738 and FT100100338. Jianting Chu and Kenneth Wong assisted with modelling and statistical analysis. Marcus Thatcher and Jack Katzfey, CSIRO, Marine and Atmosphere assisted with the technical aspects of CCAM-CABLE modelling. We appreciate the constructive comments of the reviewers which improved the quality of the paper.

## Author information

Authors

### Contributions

J.I.S and C.A.M.A. designed the modelling experiments. J.I.S. conducted the climate simulations and the data analysis. All authors contributed to the interpretation of the results and the writing of the manuscript.

### Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Jozef I. Syktus or Clive A. McAlpine.

## Ethics declarations

### Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Syktus, J., McAlpine, C. More than carbon sequestration: Biophysical climate benefits of restored savanna woodlands. Sci Rep 6, 29194 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep29194

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