From the “Proud Holobionts” blog
The idea that forests create rain has been known by peasants for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The first scientific studies go back to Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), but the subject remains controversial. Nevertheless, we are starting to understand the deep and complex interactions between the atmosphere and the biosphere. They form a true “holobiont,” a system of connected elements that affect each other in non-linear ways. A recent paper published by a research group led by Anastassia Makarieva shows how evapotranspiration, the evaporation of water by trees, modifies the water vapor dynamics and may generate high moisture content regimes that provide the rain needed by the land ecosystem. There is still much that we need to understand about these mechanisms, but one point is clear: forests are a crucial element of the stability of Earth’s climate, and they must be preserved as much as possible (U.B.)
Press Release, 14/03/2023
As water scarcity globally grows, and deforestation threatens the remaining natural forests, understanding how vegetation impacts the water cycle becomes increasingly important. In their new paper, “The role of ecosystem transpiration in creating alternate moisture regimes by influencing atmospheric moisture convergence” published in Global Change Biology ( https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.16644), an international and interdisciplinary team led by TUM demonstrated the existence of two potential moisture regimes – one drier, with additional moisture decreasing atmospheric moisture import, and one wetter, with additional moisture enhancing atmospheric moisture import. In the drier regime, water vapor behaves as a passive tracer following the air flow. In the wetter regime, it modifies atmospheric dynamics.
The team based their analysis on the previously established non-linear dependence of precipitation on atmospheric moisture content – increasing absolute humidity leads to a negligible precipitation increment if the atmosphere is dry, but to a large increment when the atmosphere is sufficiently wet. Combining this dependence with a full consideration of the water budget, the researchers showed that an increase in precipitation in humid conditions facilitated by increased evapotranspiration, should lead to enhanced moisture import. They illustrated these patterns with the data from the Amazon basin and the Loess Plateau in China.
Dr. Anja Rammig (TUM School of Life Sciences and study author) considers these results as having profound implications for the ongoing studies of the resilience of the Amazon forest in the face of the danger of deforestation and climate change. Dr. Scott Saleska (University of Arizona, study author) believes that the new results are in agreement with the profound role of leaf phenology in the Amazon forest for water cycle regulation. By forcing a decline in forest evapotranspiration, deforestation can dehumidify the atmosphere and thus drive the forest into the drier regime where transpiration of the re-growing vegetation would further aggravate aridity by decreasing moisture import. Getting out of this landscape trap could be impossible. Dr. Ruben Molina (University of Antioquia, Colombia, study author) hopes that the study findings will raise the awareness of the importance of tropical forest conservation.
Dr. Andrei Nefiodov (Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, Russia) participating in the study says that the new results corroborate the concept of the biotic pump of atmospheric moisture that emphasizes the dominant role of natural forests in transporting moisture inland. Dr. Antonio Nobre (INPE, Brazil, study author) compares this biotic moisture pumping to a beating heart, and highlights the good news: even in arid lands, by restoring the vegetation one should be able to enhance the atmospheric moisture convergence and streamflow. To achieve that, the ecological restoration strategy should be carefully designed to guide the ecosystem transition from the dry to wet regimes.
“I suspect that natural vegetation will be best for maintaining a moist and productive environment as these systems kept the world green and productive long before people got involved” – emphasizes Dr. Douglas Sheil (Wageningen University, author), collaborating on the research. “We do need to take into account the holobiontic relationships among all ecosystem elements that allow for an efficient regulation of the water cycle,” adds another author Dr. Ugo Bardi (Club of Rome, University of Florence).
Anastassia Makarieva (Institute for Advanced Study, TUM, lead author) emphasizes the need for a broad international cooperation in the studies of the ecology of the water cycle: “We have shown that the non-linear precipitation dependence on atmospheric moisture content, first noted by our co-author Dr. Mara Baudena (CNR-ISAC, Italy) and her colleagues, has widely ranging implications. The atmospheric water flows do not recognize international borders, thus deforestation disrupting evapotranspiration in one region could trigger a transition to the drier regime in another. Our results indicate that natural forests of the Earth, in both high and low latitudes, are our common legacy of pivotal global importance as they support the terrestrial water cycle. Their preservation should become a widely recognized priority for our civilization to solve the global water crisis.”
Makarieva, A. M., Nefiodov, A. V., Nobre, A. D., Baudena, M., Bardi, U., Sheil, D., Saleska, S. R., Molina, R. D., & Rammig, A. (2023). The role of ecosystem transpiration in creating alternate moisture regimes by influencing atmospheric moisture convergence. Global Change Biology, 00, 1– 21. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.16644
Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More