Tropical forests have a crucial role in cooling Earth’s surface by extracting carbon dioxide from the air. But only two-thirds of their cooling power comes from their ability to suck in CO2 and store it. The other one-third comes from their ability to create clouds, humidify the air and release cooling chemicals. This is a larger contribution than expected for these ‘biophysical effects’ says Bronson Griscom, a forest climate scientist.
The analysis, published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change in March 2022, could enable scientists to improve their climate models, while helping governments to devise better conservation and climate strategies. The findings underscore growing concerns about rampant deforestation across the tropics. Scientists warn that one-third of the world’s tropical forests have been mown down in the past few centuries, and another one-third has been degraded by logging and development. This, when combined with climate change, could transform vast swathes of forest into grasslands…
Trees in the tropics provide shade, but they also act as giant humidifiers by pulling water from the ground and emitting it from their leaves, which helps to cool the surrounding area in a way similar to sweating, Griscom says. “If you go into a forest, it immediately is a considerably cooler environment,” he says.
This transpiration, in turn, creates the right conditions for clouds, which like snow and ice in the Arctic, can reflect sunlight higher into the atmosphere and further cool the surroundings. Trees also release organic compounds — for example, pine-scented terpenes — that react with other chemicals in the atmosphere to sometimes create a net cooling effect… When they considered only the biophysical effects, the researchers found that the world’s forests collectively cool the surface of the planet by around 0.5 °C.
Threats to tropical rainforests are dangerous not only for the global climate, but also for communities that neighbour the forests, Lawrence says. She and her colleagues found that the cooling caused by biophysical effects was especially significant locally. Having a rainforest nearby can help to protect an area’s agriculture and cities from heatwaves, Lawrence says. “Every tenth of a degree matters in limiting extreme weather. And where you have forests, the extremes are minimized.”
Excerpts from Freda Kreier, Tropical forests have big climate benefits beyond carbon storage, Nature,