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Human modification of the landscape and surface climate in the next fifty years


Correspondence:R. S. DeFries, tel + 301/4054884, fax + 301/3149299, e-mail


Human modification of the landscape potentially affects exchanges of energy and water between the terrestrial biosphere and the atmosphere. This study develops a possible scenario for land cover in the year 2050 based on results from the IMAGE 2 (Integrated Model to Assess the Greenhouse Effect) model, which projects land-cover changes in response to demographic and economic activity. We use the land-cover scenario as a surface boundary condition in a biophysically-based land-surface model coupled to a general circulation model for a 15-years simulation with prescribed sea surface temperature and compare with a control run using current land cover. To assess the sensitivity of climate to anthropogenic land-cover change relative to the sensitivity to decadal-scale interannual variations in vegetation density, we also carry out two additional simulations using observed normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) from relatively low (1982–83) and high (1989–90) years to describe the seasonal phenology of the vegetation.

In the past several centuries, large-scale land-cover change occurred primarily in temperate latitudes through conversion of forests and grassland to highly productive cropland and pasture. Several studies in the literature indicate that past changes in surface climate resulting from this conversion had a cooling effect owing to changes in vegetation morphology (increased albedo). In contrast, this study indicates that future land-cover change, likely to occur predominantly in the tropics and subtropics, has a warming effect governed by physiological rather than morphological mechanisms. The physiological mechanism is to reduce carbon assimilation and consequently latent relative to sensible heat flux resulting in surface temperature increases up to 2 °C and drier hydrologic conditions in locations where land cover was altered in the experiment. In addition, in contrast to an observed decrease in diurnal temperature range (DTR) over land expected with greenhouse warming, results here suggest that future land-cover conversion in tropics could increase the DTR resulting from decreased evaporative cooling during the daytime. For grid cells with altered land cover, the sensitivity of surface temperature to future anthropogenic land-cover change is generally within the range induced by decadal-scale interannual variability in vegetation density in temperate latitudes but up to 1.5 °C warmer in the tropics.

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