The evolution of, and revolution in, land surface schemes designed for climate models

A. J. Pitman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

507 Citations (Scopus)


The land surface is a key component of climate models. It controls the partitioning of available energy at the surface between sensible and latent heat, and it controls the partitioning of available water between evaporation and runoff. The land surface is also the location of the terrestrial carbon sink. Evidence is increasing that the influence of the land surface is significant on climate and that changes in the land surface can influence regional- to global-scale climate on time scales from days to millennia. Further, there is now a suggestion that the terrestrial carbon sink may decrease as global temperatures increase as a consequence of rising CO2 levels. This paper provides the theoretical background that explains why the land surface should play a central role in climate. It also provides evidence, sourced from climate model experiments, that the land surface is of central importance. This paper then reviews the development of land surface models designed for climate models from the early, very simple models through to recent efforts, which include a coupling of biophysical processes to represent carbon exchange. It is pointed out that significant problems remain to be addressed, including the difficulties in parameterizing hydrological processes, root processes, sub-grid-scale heterogeneity and biogeochemical cycles. It is argued that continued development of land surface models requires more multidisciplinary efforts by scientists with a wide range of skills. However, it is also argued that the framework is now in place within the international community to build and maintain the latest generation of land surface models. Further, there should be considerable optimism that consolidating the recent rapid advances in land surface modelling will enhance our capability to simulate the impacts of land-cover change and the impacts of increasing CO2 on the global and regional environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)479-510
Number of pages32
JournalInternational Journal of Climatology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2003


  • Carbon
  • Climate modelling
  • Global scale
  • Land surface modelling
  • Review


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