Biogeochemical and Biophysical Responses of the Land Surface to a Sustained Thermohaline Circulation Weakening

Paul A. T. Higgins University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California

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Abstract

Biotic responses to climate change may constitute significant feedbacks to the climate system by altering biogeochemistry (e.g., carbon storage) or biophysics (i.e., albedo, evapotranspiration, and roughness length) at the land surface. Accurate projection of future climate change depends on proper accounting of these biological feedbacks. Similarly, projections of future climate change must include the potential for nonlinear responses such as thermohaline circulation (THC) weakening, which is increasingly evident in paleoclimate reconstructions and model experiments. This article uses offline simulations with the Integrated Biosphere Simulator (IBIS) to determine long-term biophysical and biogeochemical responses to climate patterns generated by the third Hadley Centre Coupled Ocean–Atmosphere General Circulation Model (HadCM3) under forced THC weakening. Total land surface carbon storage decreases by 0.5% in response to THC weakening, suggesting that the biogeochemical response would not constitute a significant climate feedback under this climate change scenario. In contrast, large regional and local changes in leaf area index (LAI) suggest that biophysical responses may constitute significant feedbacks to at least local and regional climate. Indeed, the LAI responses do lead to changes in midday direct and diffuse beam albedo over large regions of the land surface. As a result, there are large local and regional changes in the land surface's capacity to absorb solar radiation. Changes in energy partitioning between sensible and latent heat fluxes also occur. However, the change in latent heat flux from the land surface is primarily attributable to changes in precipitation that occur under forced THC weakening and not a result of the subsequent changes in vegetation.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Paul Higgins, University of California, Berkeley, 151 Hilgard Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-3110. Email: phiggins@nature.berkeley.edu

Abstract

Biotic responses to climate change may constitute significant feedbacks to the climate system by altering biogeochemistry (e.g., carbon storage) or biophysics (i.e., albedo, evapotranspiration, and roughness length) at the land surface. Accurate projection of future climate change depends on proper accounting of these biological feedbacks. Similarly, projections of future climate change must include the potential for nonlinear responses such as thermohaline circulation (THC) weakening, which is increasingly evident in paleoclimate reconstructions and model experiments. This article uses offline simulations with the Integrated Biosphere Simulator (IBIS) to determine long-term biophysical and biogeochemical responses to climate patterns generated by the third Hadley Centre Coupled Ocean–Atmosphere General Circulation Model (HadCM3) under forced THC weakening. Total land surface carbon storage decreases by 0.5% in response to THC weakening, suggesting that the biogeochemical response would not constitute a significant climate feedback under this climate change scenario. In contrast, large regional and local changes in leaf area index (LAI) suggest that biophysical responses may constitute significant feedbacks to at least local and regional climate. Indeed, the LAI responses do lead to changes in midday direct and diffuse beam albedo over large regions of the land surface. As a result, there are large local and regional changes in the land surface's capacity to absorb solar radiation. Changes in energy partitioning between sensible and latent heat fluxes also occur. However, the change in latent heat flux from the land surface is primarily attributable to changes in precipitation that occur under forced THC weakening and not a result of the subsequent changes in vegetation.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Paul Higgins, University of California, Berkeley, 151 Hilgard Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-3110. Email: phiggins@nature.berkeley.edu

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