Radiative forcing of natural forest disturbances


Correspondence: Thomas L. O'Halloran, Department of Environmental Studies, Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, VA 24595, USA, tel. + 1 434 381 6389, fax  + 1 434 381 6494, e-mail: tohalloran@sbc.edu


Forest disturbances are major sources of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and therefore impact global climate. Biogeophysical attributes, such as surface albedo (reflectivity), further control the climate-regulating properties of forests. Using both tower-based and remotely sensed data sets, we show that natural disturbances from wildfire, beetle outbreaks, and hurricane wind throw can significantly alter surface albedo, and the associated radiative forcing either offsets or enhances the CO2 forcing caused by reducing ecosystem carbon sequestration over multiple years. In the examined cases, the radiative forcing from albedo change is on the same order of magnitude as the CO2 forcing. The net radiative forcing resulting from these two factors leads to a local heating effect in a hurricane-damaged mangrove forest in the subtropics, and a cooling effect following wildfire and mountain pine beetle attack in boreal forests with winter snow. Although natural forest disturbances currently represent less than half of gross forest cover loss, that area will probably increase in the future under climate change, making it imperative to represent these processes accurately in global climate models.