Land use change exacerbates tropical South American drought by sea surface temperature variability



[1] Observations of tropical South American precipitation over the last three decades indicate an increasing rainfall trend to the north and a decreasing trend to the south. Given that tropical South America has experienced significant land use change over the same period, it is of interest to assess the extent to which changing land use may have contributed to the precipitation trends. Simulations of the National Center for Atmospheric Research Community Atmosphere Model (NCAR CAM3) analyzed here suggest a non-negligible impact of land use on this precipitation behavior. While forcing the model by imposed historical sea surface temperatures (SSTs) alone produces a plausible north-south precipitation dipole over South America, NCAR CAM substantially underestimates the magnitude of the observed southern decrease in rainfall unless forcing associated with human-induced land use change is included. The impact of land use change on simulated precipitation occurs primarily during the local dry season and in regions of relatively low annual-mean rainfall, as the incidence of very low monthly-mean accumulations (<10 mm/month) increases significantly when land use change is imposed. Land use change also contributes to the simulated temperature increase by shifting the surface turbulent flux partitioning to favor sensible over latent heating. Moving forward, continuing pressure from deforestation in tropical South America will likely increase the occurrence of significant drought beyond what would be expected by anthropogenic warming alone and in turn compound biodiversity decline from habitat loss and fragmentation.