Desertification may have retarded global warming by 20%

In 'Science' article, Weizmann scientists discuss analysis of Yatir Forest findings.

January 24, 2010 10:48
1 minute read.
Desertification may have retarded global warming by 20%

desert. (photo credit: DR)


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Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot recently made a surprising discovery about the abilities of forests to combat global warming.

In an article published on Friday in the journal Science, Prof. Dan Yakir and Dr. Eyal Rotenberg of the Environmental Sciences and Energy Research Department discuss their analysis of findings from the Yatir Forest research station.

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By looking at the other side of the equation, the two researchers discovered that desertification was not necessarily all bad - in fact, it may have retarded global warming by as much as 20%. The desert reflects sunlight and releases infrared radiation, which has a cooling effect. And in a world in which desertification is continuing at a rate of about six million hectares a year, that news might have a significant effect on how we estimate the rates and magnitude of climate change.

The Yatir Forest station sits on the edge of the Negev Desert, a semi-arid zone. While forests are commonly believed to be excellent "carbon sinks," sucking up the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is thought to contribute to global warming, the two scientists have discovered other, potentially significant, opposing effects. While forests do constitute good carbon sinks, semi-arid forests also absorb and trap more of the sun's rays than surrounding shrub land, they found, thus contributing to surface heating.

Semi-arid forests also transfer heat from the trees into the surrounding air to stay cool, causing more surface warming as well, the two found.

The Weizmann Institute has been operating the research station for 10 years, as part of a worldwide project comprised of more than 400 stations and called FLUXNET, which investigates the relationship between forests, the atmosphere and climate around the globe.

The Yatir station is unique because it "is one of very few in the semi-arid zone, which covers over 17 percent of the earth's land surface, and it has the longest record of the processes taking place in semi-arid forests," according to Yakir.

"Although the numbers vary with location and conditions," Yakir said in a statement, "we now know it will take decades of forest growth before the 'cooling' CO2 sequestration can overtake these opposing 'warming' processes.

"Overall, forests remain hugely important climate stabilizers (not to mention the other ecological services they provide), but there are tradeoffs, such as those between carbon sequestration and surface radiation budgets, and we need to take these into consideration when predicting the future," Yakir said.

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