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Another Al Gore Reality Check: “Rising tree mortality”?

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Watts Up With That?
Wednesday, Dec 16th, 2009

Guest post by Indur M. Goklany

In this Reuters story (15 December 2009) they report: “Describing a ‘runaway melt’ of the Earth’s ice, rising tree mortality and prospects of severe water scarcities, Gore told a UN audience: ‘In the face of effects like these, clear evidence that only reckless fools would ignore, I feel a sense of frustration’ at the lack of agreement so far.”

Former US Vice President Al Gore speaks at a presentation on melting ice and snow at the UN Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen December 14, 2009. Credit: REUTERS/Bob Strong 

Now to most people, “rising tree mortality” raises the specter of a world with less greenery. But how does real world data compare with the virtual modeled world? Is the world getting less greener? Is there any hint of the virtual world in the real world data?

Satellite data for the real world (not the one Mr. Gore lives in) can help give us an idea.  


Globally net primary productivity (NPP) has increased. As the IPCC’s WG II report (p. 106) says:

Satellite-derived estimates of global net primary production from satellite data of vegetation indexes indicate a 6% increase from 1982 to 1999, with large increases in tropical ecosystems (Nemani et al., 2003) [Figure 1]. The study by Zhou et al. (2003), also using satellite data, confirm that the Northern Hemisphere vegetation activity has increased in magnitude by 12% in Eurasia and by 8% in NorthAmerica from 1981 to 1999

  • A d v e r t i s e m e n t


Figure 1: Climate driven changes in global net primary productivity, 1982-1999. Source: Myneni (2006), p. 5. This is the same figure as in IPCC AR4WGII, p. 106, but with a different color scheme. 


In a synthesis of long term ecological monitoring data across old growth Amazonia, Phillips et al (2008) find that from approximately 1988 to 2000 not only that the biomass of these tropical forests increased but that they have become more dynamic, that is, they have more stems, faster recruitment, faster mortality, faster growth and more lianas. These increases have occurred across regions and environmental gradients and through time for the lowland Neotropics and Amazonia.  They note that the simplest explanation for this suite of results is that improved resource availability has increased net primary productivity, in turn increasing growth rates, which can all be explained by a long-term increase in a limiting resource.  They suggest that this no-longer-limiting resource might be CO2, although other factors (e.g., insolation or diffuse radiation) may also play a role.

Gloor et al. (2009), based on analysis of data from 135 forest plots in old growth Amazonia from 1971 to 2006 show that the observed increase in aboveground biomass is not due to an artifact of limited spatial and temporal monitoring. They conclude that biomass has increased over the past 30 years (p. 2427).

These findings are consistent with satellite data that indicate that the net primary productivity of the Amazon increased substantially from 1982–99, a period that experienced considerable global warming (see Figure 1).


Satellite Imagery shows that parts of the Sahara and Sahel are greening up consistent with the trend recorded in Figure 1 (Owen 2009).  The United Nations’ Africa Report (Figure 2) notes:

“Greening of the Sahel as observed from satellite images is now well established, confirming that trends in rainfall are the main but not the only driver of change in vegetation cover. For the period 1982-2003, the overall trend in monthly maximum Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) is positive over a large portion of the Sahel region, reaching up to 50 per cent increase in parts of Mali, Mauritania and Chad, and confirming previous findings at a regional scale.”  (United Nations 2008: 41). Figure 2: Source: United Nations (2008),


Similarly, an Australia-wide analysis of satellite data for 1981–2006 indicates that vegetation cover has increased average of 8% (Donohue et al. 2009).

Figure 3: Australia, 1981-2006.  Change in vegetation cover, as described by the fraction of  Photosynthetically Active Radiation absorbed by vegetation (fPAR). Source: Donohue et al.  (2009)


With respect to the northern latitudes, 22% of the vegetated area in Canada was found to have a positive vegetation trend from 1985–2006. Of these, 40% were in northern ecozones (Pouliot et al. 2009; see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Long term changes in vegetation for Canada, 1985-2006. Source: Pouliot, D A; Latifovic, R; Olthof (2009).


Donohue, Randall J.; Tim R. McVIcar; and Michael Roderick. (2009). Climate-related trends in Australian vegetation cover as inferred from satellite observations, 1981–2006. Global Change Biology doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2486.2008.01746.x.

Gloor, M.: O. L. Phillips, J. J. Lloyd, et al. (2009). Does the disturbance hypothesis explain the biomass increase in basin-wide Amazon forest plot data? Global Change Biology 15: 2418–2430.

Phillips, Oliver L; Simon L Lewis, Timothy R Baker, Kuo-Jung Chao and Niro Higuchi (2008). The changing Amazon forest. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Series B 2008 363, 1819-1827.


Further reading

One recent WUWT post that also sheds some light on this issue:

Cosmic Rays and tree growth patterns linked

These next two are particularly relevant, because they show that trees have recently begun to respond positively to increased CO2 in the atmosphere:

EPA about to declare CO2 dangerous – ssshhh! – Don’t tell the trees

Surprise: Earths’ Biosphere is Booming, Satellite Data Suggests CO2 the Cause

This article was posted: Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at 5:02 am

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