Vegetation impact on atmospheric moisture transport under increasing land-ocean temperature contrasts

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Destabilization of the water cycle threatens human lives and livelihoods. Meanwhile our understanding of whether and how changes in vegetation cover could trigger transitions in moisture availability remains incomplete. This challenge calls for better evidence as well as for the theoretical concepts to describe it. Here we briefly summarize the theoretical questions surrounding the role of vegetation cover in the dynamics of a moist atmosphere. We discuss the previously unrecognized sensitivity of local wind power to condensation rate as revealed by our analysis of the continuity equation for a gas mixture. Using the framework of condensation-induced atmospheric dynamics, we then show that with the temperature contrast between land and ocean increasing up to a critical threshold, ocean-to-land moisture transport reaches a tipping point where it can stop or even reverse. Land-ocean temperature contrasts are affected by both global and regional processes, in particular, by the surface fluxes of sensible and latent heat that are strongly influenced by vegetation. Our results clarify how a disturbance of natural vegetation cover, e.g., by deforestation, can disrupt large-scale atmospheric circulation and moisture transport: an increase of sensible heat flux upon deforestation raises land surface temperature and this can elevate the temperature difference between land and ocean beyond the threshold. In view of the increasing pressure on natural ecosystems, successful strategies of mitigating climate change require taking into account the impact of vegetation on moist atmospheric dynamics. Our analysis provides a theoretical framework to assess this impact. The available data for the Northern Hemisphere indicate that the observed climatological land-ocean temperature contrasts are close to the threshold. This can explain the increasing fluctuations in the continental water cycle including droughts and floods and signifies a yet greater potential importance for large-scale forest conservation.
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DOI:
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2022.e11173
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