"In areas with substantial snow cover, we found that canopy removal due to either fire or insect attack increased reflected radiation and approximately offset the warming that would be caused by increased release of carbon dioxide," O'Halloran said. "However, we haven't been able to measure the full impact from the current beetle outbreak, which could take decades to complete."
This complex phenomenon would be much less in lower latitudes or areas without snow for much of the year, the researchers said. It relates primarily to boreal or colder mid-latitude forests, such as the Canadian insect outbreak over 374,000 square kilometers of forest.
"The impacts of insects on forest carbon dynamics and resulting changes in albedo are generally ignored in large-scale modeling," Law said.
The study also found that forest disturbance does not always cause an albedo increase. When Hurricane Wilma in 2005 partially defoliated more than 2,400 square kilometers of a mangrove forest in the Florida Everglades, it exposed an underlying land surface darker than the previous forest canopy. In that case, an albedo decrease effectively doubled the warming impact of released carbon dioxide.
All of the forces studied in this research fire, insect attack and hurricanes are expected to increase in severity, frequency or extent under climate change scenarios, the scientists said. In the United States alone, these events affect 20,000 to 40,000 square kilometers of forest a year. If Earth system models are to be accurate, this makes it important to more accurately incorporate changes in albedo.
Globally, forest disturbances are a major factor in the carbon cycle and greenhouse gas warming. They can instantly switch
|Contact: Beverly Law|
Oregon State University