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Zhenzhong Zeng, Shilong Piao, Laurent Z. X. Li, Tao Wang, Philippe Ciais, Xu Lian, Yuting Yang, Jiafu Mao, Xiaoying Shi, and Ranga B. Myneni

Abstract

Leaf area index (LAI) is increasing throughout the globe, implying Earth greening. Global modeling studies support this contention, yet satellite observations and model simulations have never been directly compared. Here, for the first time, a coupled land–climate model was used to quantify the potential impact of the satellite-observed Earth greening over the past 30 years on the terrestrial water cycle. The global LAI enhancement of 8% between the early 1980s and the early 2010s is modeled to have caused increases of 12.0 ± 2.4 mm yr−1 in evapotranspiration and 12.1 ± 2.7 mm yr−1 in precipitation—about 55% ± 25% and 28% ± 6% of the observed increases in land evapotranspiration and precipitation, respectively. In wet regions, the greening did not significantly decrease runoff and soil moisture because it intensified moisture recycling through a coincident increase of evapotranspiration and precipitation. But in dry regions, including the Sahel, west Asia, northern India, the western United States, and the Mediterranean coast, the greening was modeled to significantly decrease soil moisture through its coupling with the atmospheric water cycle. This modeled soil moisture response, however, might have biases resulting from the precipitation biases in the model. For example, the model dry bias might have underestimated the soil moisture response in the observed dry area (e.g., the Sahel and northern India) given that the modeled soil moisture is near the wilting point. Thus, an accurate representation of precipitation and its feedbacks in Earth system models is essential for simulations and predictions of how soil moisture responds to LAI changes, and therefore how the terrestrial water cycle responds to climate change.

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