NASA demostrates how Earth's global heat engine drives plant growth

April 10, 2001

Scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center have assembled the first long-term global data set that demonstrates the connection between changing patterns of sea surface temperature and patterns of plant growth across the Earth's landscapes. The results of their new study appear in the April 2001 issue of the Journal of Climate.

"For the first time, we can see patterns of climate variability reflected in land vegetation growth, globally, which was not possible before," states Sietse Los, the paper's lead author. "Until now, we haven't had a good data set to show us how vegetation changes over long periods of time."

Since land vegetation absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis, which is ultimately released back to the atmosphere through decomposition and fires, the authors wanted to gain new insights into where there are large variations in plant growth. Such variations have implications for the spatial distribution of carbon sources and sinks, and how they change over time. Although seasonal variations in plant growth can be large, growth can also vary widely from one year to the next. Moreover, recent studies suggest that due to global warming the growing season is getting longer at higher latitudes, thereby increasing the ability of terrestrial plants to serve as a carbon sink.

As part of Compton Tucker's (a co-author) satellite data processing effort, the team reprocessed nine years of NOAA Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) data--from January 1982 through December 1990--into a series of one-month global composite images of sea surface temperature and plant productivity (indicated by the normalized difference vegetation index, or NDVI).

The authors note that AVHRR is a broadband remote sensor designed primarily to look at snow and clouds, not vegetation. Because the sensor did not have strong calibration and orbital requirements, as compared to today's satellite technologies for measuring vegetation, the authors had to painstakingly fine-tune each image to correct for errors that interfere with its interpretation, such as aerosol particles in the atmosphere.

"Using various analysis techniques, we can now extract signals from the vegetation data that relate to the climate system," Los states. "And we can now correlate vegetative response to climate change in three dimensions--through time and space."

When viewing the monthly false-color images consecutively in a time-series animation, distinct large-scale patterns of change become quickly obvious to the eye. Reds representing unusually warm waters wax and wane across patches of ocean while the greens of vigorous plant growth, or the browns of drought, roll across landscapes in response.

Co-author James Collatz points to the recurring cycles of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation in the equatorial Pacific and Southern Atlantic during the 1980s. Then he notes the subsequent patterns of drought and vigorous growth that sweep back and forth across South America, as if the continent were the ball in an ongoing ping-pong match between the two mighty oceans.

"What it shows is what you might expect," he observes. "Sea surface temperatures have an impact on the climate (temperature and precipitation) over land and this affects growth of vegetation."

Dubbed the "global heat engine," Earth scientists have long since recognized that as the ocean releases warmth and moisture into the overlying atmosphere it dramatically influences weather patterns. Anomalously high sea surface temperature, as seen in the equatorial Pacific during El Nino, can drive weather patterns to extremes--producing torrential rains and flooding in some parts of the world and severe drought in others.

But, say the paper's authors, you cannot expect El Nino to always have the same effects on plant growth across a given region. The impacts of some El Ninos are more intense than others.

"Climate oscillations can sometimes interact with one another," explains Collatz. "For instance, the effects of El Nino are sometimes magnified and at other times almost completely cancelled out by the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO)."

Ultimately, say the authors, this new data set strengthens scientists' ability to forecast the effects of climate change on vegetation on a global scale. But in order to improve their predictions of what impacts El Nino might have, they need to know what other climate oscillations might affect the strength of El Nino.

"Natural resources, food--lots of things depend upon the healthy growth of vegetation," concludes Collatz. "It is important for us to understand and be able to predict how forests and crops will respond to climate cycles like El Nino."

Toward that objective, scientists now have almost 20 years of global observations to give them a perspective they've never had before. With this new data they can begin to examine in more detail the roles of the terrestrial biosphere in both the carbon and water cycles.

There are new NASA satellite sensors now in orbit that are much better calibrated than AVHRR and specifically designed to measure the Earth's vegetation. Even as they improve upon the quality of the measurements, these sensors--such as the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS), flying aboard OrbView-2, and the Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), flying aboard Terra--will extend the heritage of the AVHRR data set well into the new millennium.
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