Possible climatic impacts of land cover transformations, with particular emphasis on tropical deforestation

A. Henderson-Sellers*, V. Gornitz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

166 Citations (Scopus)


The climatic impact of albedo changes associated with land-surface alterations has been examined. The total surface global albedo change resulting from major land-cover transformations (i.e. deforestation, desertification, irrigation, dam-building, urbanization) has been recalculated, modifying the estimates of Sagan et al., (1979). Tropical deforestation (11.1 million ha yr-1, or 0.6% yr-1, Lanly, 1982) ranks as a major cause of albedo change, although uncertainties in the areal extent of desertification could conceivably render this latter process of similar significance. The maximum total global albedo change over the last 30 yr for the various processes lies between 0.000 33 and 0.000 64, corresponding to a global temperature decrease of between 0.06 K and 0.09 K (scaled from the 1-D radiative convective model of Hansen et al., 1981), which falls well below the interannual and longer period variability. An upper bound to the impact of tropical deforestation was obtained by concentrating all vegetation change into a single region. The magnitude of this modification is equivalent to 35-50 yr of global deforestation at the current rate, but centered on the Brazilian Amazon. The climatic consequences of such tropical deforestation were simulated, using the GISS GCM (Hansen et al., 1983). In the simulation, a total area of 4.94 × 106 km2 of tropical moist forest was removed and replaced by a grass/crop cover. Although surface albedo increased from 0.11 to 0.19, the effect upon surface temperature was negligible. However, other climate parameters were altered. Rainfall decreased by 0.5-0.7 mm day-1 and both evapotranspiration and total cloud cover were reduced. The absence of a temperature decrease in spite of the increased surface albedo arises because the reduction in evapotranspiration has offset the effects of radiative cooling. The decrease in cloud cover also counteracts the increase in surface albedo. These locally significant changes had no major impact on regional (Hadley or Walker cells) or the global circulation patterns. We conclude that the albedo changes induced by current levels of tropical deforestation appear to have a negligibly small effect on the global climate.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)231-257
Number of pages27
JournalClimatic Change
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sept 1984
Externally publishedYes


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