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Forests play a larger role in climate than previously thought

Thursday, October 11, 2018 - 10:00

When Abigail Swann started her career in the mid-2000s, she was one of just a handful of scientists exploring a potentially radical notion: that the green plants living on Earth’s surface could have a major influence on the planet’s climate. For decades, most atmospheric scientists had focused their weather and climate models on wind, rain and other physical phenomena.

But with powerful computer models that can simulate how plants move water, carbon dioxide and other chemicals between ground and air, Swann has found that vegetation can control weather patterns across huge distances. The destruction or expansion of forests on one continent might boost rainfall or cause a drought halfway around the world.

Swann is now a professor at the University of Washington, where she runs the Ecoclimate lab. She is in the vanguard of a small but growing group of scientists studying how plants shape Earth’s weather and climate. Their results could shake up climate science. “None of the atmospheric scientists are thinking about” how plants could influence rainfall, Swann said, though hints had appeared in the scientific literature for decades. And, she added, “it blows the ecology community’s mind … that the plants over here could actually influence the plants over there.”

“Many of us are surprised at what a powerful role plants actually play,” said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University. “The influence of Earth’s surface on large-scale climate is currently a really booming topic, and Abby Swann is one of the emerging leaders in that field.”

To learn more about how forests affect climate, read the full article at Quanta Magazine.

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