Potentially complex biosphere responses to transient global warming


Ronald P. Neilson, fax +1/541-750-7329,


Feedback interactions between terrestrial vegetation and climate could alter predictions of the responses of both systems to a doubling of atmospheric CO2. Most previous analyses of biosphere responses to global warming have used output from equilibrium simulations of current and future climate, as compared to more recently available transient GCM simulations. We compared the vegetation responses to these two different classes of GCM simulation (equilibrium and transient) using an equilibrium vegetation distribution model, MAPSS. Average climatologies were extracted from the transient GCM simulations for current and doubled (2×) CO2 concentrations (taken to be 2070–2099) for use by the equilibrium vegetation model. However, the 2 × CO2 climates extracted from the transient GCM simulations were not in equilibrium, having attained only about 65% of their eventual 2 × CO2 equilibrium temperature change. Most of the differences in global vegetation response appeared to be related to a very different simulated change in the pole to tropic temperature gradient. Also, the transient scenarios produced much larger increases of precipitation in temperate latitudes, commensurate with a minimum in the latitudinal temperature change. Thus, the (equilibrium) global vegetation response, under the transient scenarios, tends more to a greening than a decline in vegetation density, as often previously simulated. It may be that much of the world could become greener during the early phases of global warming, only to reverse in later, more equilibrial stages. However, whether or not the world's vegetation experiences large drought-induced declines or perhaps large vegetation expansions in early stages could be determined by the degree to which elevated CO2 will actually benefit natural vegetation, an issue still under debate. There may occur oscillations, perhaps on long timescales, between greener and drier phases, due to different frequency responses of the coupled ocean–atmosphere–biosphere interactions. Such oscillations would likely, of themselves, impart further reverberations to the coupled Earth System.