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Forests play an overlooked role in Earth's climate system

A recent publication in Nature Communications unveils groundbreaking insights into the integral role forests play within the climate system and the water cycle, underscoring the need for a deeper understanding of their full impact. 

Conducted by researchers from Stockholm University alongside international collaborators from 11 institutions across five countries, including Sweden, the UK, Finland, Germany, and Brazil, the study sheds light on the complex interactions between forests and their contribution to cloud formation, which in turn could significantly affect global temperatures.

Focus of the study

Forests, covering a third of the planet’s land surface, are crucial for carbon storage and regulating the water cycle. The research uniquely focuses on both boreal and tropical forests, which account for 27% and 45% of the world’s forested areas, respectively. 

These ecosystems exhibit distinct differences in their emissions and the processes of cloud formation, influencing the feedback loop between forests, clouds, and the climate differently.

“This study, utilizing long-term data from diverse forest environments in Finland and Brazil, marks the first time observational evidence has been presented for these interactions in tropical rainforests,” said Sara Blichner, a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Environmental Sciences at Stockholm University.

Key findings

One of the critical findings of the study is the underrepresentation of forests in current climate models, particularly regarding their role in cloud formation.

“Our findings suggest that current models may underestimate the impact of forests on cloud formation and climate, especially in tropical regions, which are crucial due to the high amount of solar radiation these areas receive at these latitudes,” Blichner explained.

Refining climate models

Despite identifying areas for improvement, Blichner emphasizes the reliability of climate models in capturing the core dynamics of climate change. 

“Climate models are highly trustworthy in representing the main processes of climate change. Our research aims to refine these models, reducing uncertainties in future climate projections,” she said.

Natural emissions

Furthermore, the study highlights the growing significance of natural particles from forests in the climate system, especially as man-made particle emissions decrease due to stringent air quality policies. These natural emissions could increasingly influence cloud reflectivity and, consequently, global warming.

“Natural aerosol feedbacks are expected to become more important in the future, as anthropogenic aerosol emissions decrease due to air quality policy,” wrote the study authors. 

“One such feedback is initiated by the increase in biogenic volatile organic compound (BVOC) emissions with higher temperatures, leading to higher secondary organic aerosol (SOA) production and a cooling of the surface via impacts on cloud radiative properties.”

Study implications 

The collaborative effort underscores the necessity for ongoing research and enhancements in climate modeling to more accurately predict future climate scenarios. 

The study also stresses the importance of considering forest conservation as a pivotal strategy in climate change mitigation, given the role of forests in emitting organic gasses that contribute to particle formation, cloud reflectivity, and potentially cooler surface temperatures. 

As global temperatures rise, the expectation is that forests will emit more gasses, leading to an increase in particle formation and more reflective clouds, a critical factor in climate regulation.

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