Global vegetation cover changes from coarse resolution satellite data


  • Ramakrishna R. Nemani,

  • Steven W. Running,

  • Roger A. Pielke,

  • Thomas N. Chase


Land cover plays a key role in various biophysical processes related to global climate and terrestrial biogeochemistry. Although global land cover has dramatically changed over the last few centuries, until now there has been no consistent way of quantifying the changes globally. In this study we used long-term climate and soils data along with coarse resolution satellite observations to quantify the magnitude and spatial extent of large-scale land cover changes attributable to anthropogenic processes. Differences between potential leaf area index (LAI), derived from climate-soil-leaf area equilibrium, and actual leaf area index obtained from satellite data are used to estimate changes in land cover. Further, changes in LAI between potential and actual conditions are linked to climate by expressing them as possible changes in radiometric surface temperatures (Tr) resulting from changes in surface energy partitioning. As expected, areas with high population densities, such as India, China, and western Europe showed large reductions in LAI. Changes in global land cover expressed as summer, midafternoon Tr, ranged from −8° to +16°C. Deforestation resulted in an increase in Tr, while irrigated agriculture reduced the Tr. Many of the current general circulation models (GCMs) use potential vegetation maps to represent global vegetation. Our results indicate that there are widespread changes in global land cover due to deforestation and agriculture below the resolution of many GCMs, and these changes could have a significant impact on climate. Potential and actual LAI data sets are available for climate modelers at 0.5° × 0.5° resolution to study the possible impacts of land cover changes on global temperatures and circulation patterns.