Land use change has warmed the Earth's surface

February 20, 2018, European Commission Joint Research Centre
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Recent changes to vegetation cover are causing the Earth's surface to heat up. Activities like cutting down evergreen forests for agricultural expansion in the tropics create energy imbalances that lead to higher local surface temperatures and contribute to global warming.

Natural ecosystems play a crucial role in helping combat climate change, air pollution and soil erosion. A new study by a team of researchers from the Joint Research Centre, the European Commission's science and knowledge service, sheds light on another, less well-known aspect of how these ecosystems, and forests in particular, can protect our planet against .

The research team used satellite data to analyse changes in global vegetation cover from 2000 to 2015 and link these to changes in the surface energy balance. Modifying the vegetation cover alters the surface properties - such as the amount of heat dissipated by water evaporation and the level of radiation reflected back into space - which has a knock-on effect on local surface . Their analysis reveals how recent land cover changes have ultimately made the planet warmer.

"We knew that forests have a role in regulating surface temperatures and that deforestation affects the climate, but this is the first global data-driven assessment that has enabled us to systematically map the biophysical mechanisms behind these processes", explains Gregory Duveiller, lead author of the study.

The study also looked beyond deforestation, analysing changes between different types of vegetation, from evergreen forests to savannas, shrublands, grasslands, croplands and wetlands. However, they found that the removal of tropical evergreen for is the vegetation cover transition most responsible for local increases in temperature.

From a greenhouse gas perspective, the cutting of forests might only affect the global climate in the mid-to-long term. However, the scientists point out that local communities living in areas where the trees are cut will immediately be exposed to rising temperatures.

The study was published in Nature Communications today and the datasets behind are fully described in Scientific Data

Explore further: Forests are the key to fresh water

More information: Gregory Duveiller et al, The mark of vegetation change on Earth's surface energy balance, Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-017-02810-8

Related Stories

Forests are the key to fresh water

December 7, 2017

Freshwater resources are critical to both human civilization and natural ecosystems, but UBC researchers have discovered that changes to ground vegetation can have as much of an impact on global water resources as climate ...

Deforestation is messing with our weather and our food

April 1, 2015

Today, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) at the University of Maryland published new research in Nature Communications providing insight into how large-scale deforestation could impact global food ...

Recommended for you

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 20, 2018
This research makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the earth's climate. It adds a further complexity not factored in by the IPCC computer models. The research is not a 'thought experiment' like CAGW as it is based on data derived from physical observations for more than a decade - 2000 to 2015. The findings amplify the fact regional land variation impacts climate temperatures often with more warming, but not always depending on the albedo effect. A parallel regional reality is found in cloud cover studies. Again the IPCC computer models fail here because of the complexity and the uncertainty of clouds. This research reinforces the reality that human hubris is unhelpful in making climate projections. Doubt and humility are the better attitudes.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.