In the alternate universe of Fox News, Anthony Watts, and many others, up is down. Now, it appears, brown is green. Following the total confusion over the retraction of a paper on sea level, claims of another “mistake” by the IPCC are making the rounds of the blogosphere. This time, the issue is the impact of rainfall changes on the Amazon rainforest.
A study in 2007 showed that the forest gets greener when it rains less. A new study, by Samanta et al. in Geophysical Research Letters shows that the earlier work was flawed. Aided by an apparently rather careless press release, this is being used as evidence that the Amazon is less sensitive to rainfall changes than the IPCC claimed. But the Samanta et al. paper actually does not address the central questions at all. It only addresses whether a single anomalous rainfall year had an impact that is measureable and interpretable from a satellite sensor. The conclusion is that they could not detect a change. As noted in a commentary from Simon Lewis, University of Leeds, “the critical question is how these forests respond to repeated droughts, not merely single-year droughts.”
Lewis – a broadly published expert on tropical forests – makes a number of additional important points in his commentary below. Bottom line: IPCC gets it right as usual.
Guest Commentary by Simon Lewis, University of Leeds, UK
The new Samanta et al. study uses sensors on satellites to assess the colour of the rainforest canopy in the dry season of the year 2005, compared to the dry seasons of the years 2003 and 2004. More detected green colour in 2005 may suggest that the forest is being more productive (more green leaves photosynthesising), or more brown colours may suggest leaves dying and less productivity, than the previous years. The results show that 2005 was little different to the previous years, despite the strong drought.
This is important new information, as in 2007, a paper using broadly the same satellite-based method showed a strong ‘greening-up’ of the Amazon in 2005, suggesting tolerance to drought (Saleska et al. 2007, Science). The new study shows that those results were not reproducible, but also highlight the extreme caution that should be attached to satellite studies generally in this field, with instruments in space collecting data which is then used to infer subtle changes in the ecology of tropical forests.
In contrast to the 2007 paper, Oliver Phillips, myself, and others, published a paper in Science last year, using ground observations from across the Amazon, showing that while the 2005 drought did not dramatically change the growth of the trees compared to a normal year, as Samanta et al. also show, the deaths of trees did increase considerably. The new study of Samanta et al. does not contradict the Phillips et al. study, which itself shows the Amazon is vulnerable to drought via impacts on tree mortality. The Phillips et al. paper showed that remaining Amazon forest trees changed from absorbing nearly 2 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere annually over recent decades, as tree growth has been exceeding mortality, to being a large, but temporary, source of over 3 billion tonnes, from the elevated tree mortality associated with the 2005 drought event.
The evidence for the possibility of a major die-back of the Amazon rainforest is due to two factors,
1. That climate change induced decreases in rainfall in the dry season occur, and
2. The trees cannot tolerate these reductions in rainfall.
The Samanta paper does not directly address the first point; this is addressed using global circulation models (of which some, but not all, show a strong drying trend for the east of the Amazon over the 21st century). The second point is only addressed in a limited way. The critical question is how these forests respond to repeated droughts, not merely single-year droughts. The forests are of course able to withstand these single droughts (otherwise there would be no rainforest!) — it is their ability to survive an increased frequency of the most severe droughts that is critical to answer. Drought experiments, where a roof is built under the forest canopy to reduce rainfall, show that most forest trees survive a single year’s intense drought, in agreement with the ground observations in the 2005 drought, but can’t persist with repeated years of drought. The Samanta study does not address this point at all.
In conclusion, the new Samanta et al. study lends further weight to the emerging picture of the impact of the 2005 drought: that tree growth was relatively unaffected, but tree mortality increased, contributing temporarily to accelerating the rate of climate change, rather than as usual reducing it, via additions of carbon to the atmosphere from the dead trees. The mortality was far from catastrophic, but the impact on the carbon cycle was globally significant. This is hardly the ‘no impact’ of the 2005-drought on the forest suggested in various news reports.
I should add that there is considerable uncertainty associated with the models suggesting decreases in rainfall, and uncertainty as to how Amazon forests may react (especially when one considers the impacts of deforestation, logging, and fire combined with climate change impacts). But this uncertainty is being chipped away at by scientists, a task in which the Samanta et al. paper assists.
Oddly, the Boston University press release to accompany the paper was titled, “New study debunks myths about Amazon rain forests”. The opening line runs: “A new NASA-funded study has concluded that Amazon rain forests were remarkably unaffected in the face of once-in-a-century drought in 2005, neither dying nor thriving, contrary to a previously published report and claims by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” So, have scientists, myself included, been peddling myths? Have respected journals being publishing them? Have the IPCC? The answer is no, no and no.
The reality is that the IPCC have largely ignored the papers on the model results of decreasing rainfall in the east of the Amazon, and the diverse evidence used to assess the sensitivity of these forests to such rainfall reductions. There are a couple of lines in IPCC Working Group I (“New coupled climate-carbon models (Betts et al., 2004; Huntingford et al., 2004) demonstrate the possibility of large feedbacks between future climate change and vegetation change, discussed further in Section 7.3.5 (i.e., a die back of Amazon vegetation and reductions in Amazon precipitation).”). And in Working Group II there is a now infamous single sentence:
“Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation (Rowell and Moore, 2000).”
The statement is not as carefully worded as it should be, and incorrectly referenced, but basically scientifically correct and defensible with recourse to the peer-reviewed literature available at the time. Rainforest persists above a threshold of rainfall, below which one finds savanna. If this threshold is crossed a landscape dominated by rainforest can ‘flip’ to savanna. Therefore a ‘slight’ reduction can lead to a ‘dramatic’ reaction. Of course, evidence of a shift to a new lower rainfall climate regime is needed, and evidence of large areas of forest close to that rainfall threshold would be required for the IPCC statement to be reasonable; there is ample published evidence for both.
Overall the conclusions in the IPCC 2007 Fourth Assessment Report are strengthened (because the anomalous result of the Saleska et al. 2007 paper appear to be at fault), not weakened, by the new Samanta et al. study as their press release implies.
Update: Saleska responds, pointing out that a) their 2007 paper is not contradicted by Samanta et al. (2010); b) nor is the IPCC report weakened by either paper. Confused? Then read what he has to say: here.