How transpiration by forests and other vegetation determines alternate moisture regimes

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The terrestrial water cycle links the soil and atmosphere moisture reservoirs through four fluxes: precipitation, evaporation, runoff and atmospheric moisture convergence. Each of these fluxes is essential for human and ecosystem well-being. However, predicting how the water cycle responds to changes in vegetation cover, remains a challenge (Lawrence and Vandecar, 2015; Ellison et al., 2017; te Wierik et al., 2021). Recently, rainfall was shown to decrease disproportionally with reduced forest transpiration following deforestation (Baudena et al., 2021). Here, combining these findings with the law of matter conservation, we show that in a sufficiently wet atmosphere forest transpiration can control atmospheric moisture convergence such that increased transpiration enhances atmospheric moisture import. Conversely, in a drier atmosphere increased transpiration reduces atmospheric moisture convergence and runoff. This previously unrecognized dichotomy can explain the seemingly random observations of runoff and soil moisture sometimes increasing and sometimes reducing in response to re-greening (e.g., Zheng et al., 2021). Evaluating the transition between the two regimes is crucial both for characterizing the risk posed by deforestation as well as for motivating and guiding global ecosystem restoration.

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