The Word For World Really Might Be Forest

Two weeks ago (sorry about the delay) I interviewed a scientist over what might be world-changing research. The paper I covered is only a modest reworking of something that some of the authors have previously published a few times, and it actually has got a reasonable amount of coverage. Nevertheless, the implications here are so huge, and so appealing to the environment movement, it’s a bit surprising that it isn’t all over social media at the very least. A distorting article in The Australian aside, the local media has largely ignored this.

My guess as to the reason why it isn’t is that it’s also work that is incredibly easy to distort, and inevitably the usual suspects are out there doing just that. Like trolls in the comments section of an intelligent article I suspect these figures are not so much convincing anyone but closing down opportunities for thoughtful discussion. Consider this my effort to open it back up.

The core of this idea is that two Russian physicists have proposed the idea that it is evaporation and condensation, rather than temperature differences, that are the primary drivers of wind patterns. When water condenses out of the air it lowers the atmospheric pressure, causing air to sweep in from surrounding locations – ie wind. Moreover, most of the water vapour in the atmosphere sits fairly close to the ground and condenses as it rises into cooler air so winds sweep in to replace the condensing water vapour. This airflow encourages further evaporation, followed by more condensation in the air column above, creating a positive feedback loop. Dr Anastassia Makarieva and Professor Victor Gorshkov of the St Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute argue this is a much larger contributor to wind generation than anyone has previously recognised.

If true, this would be a huge shake-up for our mental model of the Earth. I learned that temperature variations produced wind when I was still in primary school. A lot of textbooks would have to be rewritten. So too would climate models. Naturally this is the part the denialist movement has jumped on. When I interviewed Professor Douglas Sheil, co-author on the most recent paper, he ruefully acknowledged that, yes The Australian had made his statements sound harsher on climate modellers than he intended, and yes he pretty much knew this was coming before they interviewed him.

However, while acceptance of this idea would change our predictions as to which parts of the planet will warm the most, become drier or wetter etc, The Australian did at least quote Sheil saying, “The basic physical issues are still there. Winds are still caused to some degree by temperature differences, global warming will still be potentially caused by greenhouse gasses.” I can’t see any reason why it should change the overall temperature estimates based on a specific level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or the estimated sea level rise. The fact that things might be a bit better in one place and a bit worse in another is hardly a reason to back off on climate action. Arguably the uncertainty is all the more reason to do something – you can no longer be sure you’ll be one of those who will get off lightly.

But that doesn’t mean there are no policy implications. You might think that most of the evaporation occurs over the Earth’s oceans, but Sheil, a forest ecologist at Southern Cross University, says this is not really true. Forests have many times as much leaf area as the ground they cover, and these leaves all, to some degree, perspire water. Rainforest trees perspire a lot. So per square kilometre a rainforest will release much more than open ocean, sometimes ten times more.

The idea that forests bring the rain, and cutting them down can affect local weather patterns, is not new. But Makarieva, Gorshkov and Sheil argue forests also create winds that sweep rain inland.

Sheil says he became interested in the idea having noticed that over most of the planet rain reduces the further you get in from the coast (mountain ranges aside, I presume). However, over the great rainforests, such as the Amazon, this doesn’t happen – it rains just as much inland as near the coast. Even more suggestively, he says that in the great boreal forests of Russia the rain and snow also fall inland, except in the depths of winter when the snow sticks to the coast. Why? He thinks it is because “it’s so cold the forests shut down” and no longer transpire much water.

Russian Boreal Forest. Credit: Greenpeace

Russian Boreal Forest. Credit: Greenpeace

The theory runs that Australia is so dry in large part because we don’t have forests, not the other way around. The last two hundred years has obviously been a big contributor to this, but Aboriginal fire practices appear to have also been significant.

Everyone agrees that the pressure changes caused by condensation and evaporation can produce wind, but the standard models have this as an effect small enough to be ignored. Some models factor it in, but as a marginal effect. Sheil and his colleagues think it is actually the largest wind generator, at least of those air movements travelling from the coast to the centre of continents – that is the ones that bear rain.

If true forests are even more important than we realised. Without coastal forests there will not be enough rain to support forests inland. There may even not be enough rain to support agriculture inland. The authors hypothesise that the drying out of central Australia and the Sahara is largely due to deforestation setting up a vicious circle where not enough rain came in to support forests, which then dried areas out even further. The survival of America’s waving fields of corn may depend on preserving the Redwoods. Restoration of deserts needs to occur via slow reforestation starting from the coast along the lines of the Kenyan Green Belt Movement.

Here’s the kicker though. It’s not just trees that matter, the trio believe, it’s diverse forests. Monoculture plantations lack the the understory that mediates transpiration. Makarieva has claimed there are complex feedback loops that mean intact forest releases a sustainable amount of water, where plantations have something more akin to a boom and bust cycle. With very long busts.

Now it should be stressed that this theory is far from established. Most atmospheric scientists don’t accept it, and Makarieva, Gorshkov and Sheil had a difficult time getting it published in an atmospheric journal. Even when the did, it was only with a note from the editors saying they were unconvinced of its accuracy and were publishing in the hope of sparking debate. Obviously denialists jumped on this as evidence of how close minded climate scientists are. However, it is instructive that publication did indeed occur in one of the most prestigious climate journals around, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

Given that the trio had previously been published several times on the topic in physics journals the idea that peer review more broadly is closed to radically new ideas doesn’t get much support. Indeed publication elsewhere could easily have given Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics‘ editors the excuse that this paper wasn’t new enough to justify publication. The authors have set the challenge for anyone to find flaws in their work that might mean they are exaggerating the effect.

More than a pretty face

More than a pretty face

Moreover, if Makarieva, Gorshkov and Sheil are even halfway right the climate system is even more complex than we thought, and even more in danger of disruption from human behaviour. If humans were disrupting climate on a continental scale even before we invented agriculture it should be obvious industrialised society could mess with the planet’s thermostat with ease.

The physics aside, the primary implications of this theory are:

1) The Earth is a delicate system and we mess with it at our peril.

2) Forests matter, and are worth much more standing than as paper.

3) Intact ecosystems do their jobs much better than the crude imitations we like to put in their place after was have destroyed them.

Yet The Australian and Watts Up With That are using it to discredit environmentalists. You have to give them credit for chutzpah.

Update 1: This is now the second most read post on my site, and while that is still tiny, it makes me regret not having provided the link to this previous, very much related, post.My piece on landscape traps also happens to be much better written, for what it is worth.

Update 2: Sheil contacted me. After asking me to correct my deeply embarrassing error in his name (now fixed) he suggested I explain that The Australian distorted what he was saying by taking a multifaceted explanation of why he thought atmospheric scientists were resistant to the idea and taking this out of context to make it appear to be the whole story.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
This entry was posted in Botany, Enemies of science, Global Warming, Physics, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Word For World Really Might Be Forest

  1. Pingback: April Still On Sale | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

  2. Pingback: Rainforest and Rain Redux | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

  3. Pingback: - blogging the big picture » We need more trees. Many more.

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