CHAMPAIGN, Ill. Those making land use decisions to reduce the harmful effects of climate change have focused almost exclusively on greenhouse gases analyzing, for example, how much carbon dioxide is released when a forest is cleared to grow crops. A new study in Nature Climate Change aims to present a more complete picture to incorporate other characteristics of ecosystems that also influence climate.
"We know that forests store a lot of carbon and clearing a forest releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributes to climate change," said University of Illinois postdoctoral researcher Kristina Anderson-Teixeira, who pioneered the new approach with plant biology and Energy Biosciences Institute professor Evan DeLucia. "But ecosystems provide other climate regulation services as well."
The climate effects of a particular ecosystem also depend on its physical attributes, she said. One such attribute is its reflectivity, a quality climate scientists call albedo.
"If you think of an open snow-covered field or bare sandy soil, that ground acts somewhat like a mirror, reflecting solar radiation back to space," Anderson-Teixeira said. "In contrast, a forest is dark and absorbs a lot of solar radiation. In that sense, any type of vegetation is going to warm the land surface to some extent."
Another factor that should be considered is an ecosystem's ability to release heat through the evaporation of water. The more water available in an ecosystem, the more it cools itself by evapotranspiration or, as DeLucia puts it, "planetary sweating."
"It takes a great deal of energy to convert liquid water to vapor, and this transition cools the soil and the surface of leaves as wa
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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign