Uncertainties in the evapotranspiration response to afforestation constitute a major source of disagreement between model-based studies of the potential climate benefits of forests. Forests typically have higher evapotranspiration rates than grasslands in the tropics, but whether this is also the case in the midlatitudes is still debated. To explore this question and the underlying physical processes behind these varying evapotranspiration rates of forests and grasslands in more detail, a regional model study with idealized afforestation scenarios was performed for Europe. In the first experiment, Europe was maximally forested, and in the second one, all forests were turned into grassland.
The results of this modeling study exhibit the same contradicting evapotranspiration characteristics of forests and grasslands as documented in observational studies, but by means of an additional sensitivity simulation in which the surface roughness of the forest was reduced to grassland, the mechanisms behind these varying evapotranspiration rates could be revealed. Due to the higher surface roughness of a forest, solar radiation is more efficiently transformed into turbulent sensible heat fluxes, leading to lower surface temperatures (top of vegetation) than in grassland. ... mehrThe saturation deficit between the vegetation and the atmosphere, which depends on the surface temperature, is consequently reduced over forests. This reduced saturation deficit counteracts the transpiration-facilitating characteristics of a forest (deeper roots, a higher leaf area index, LAI, and lower albedo values than grassland). If the impact of the reduced saturation deficit exceeds the effects of the transpiration-facilitating characteristics of a forest, evapotranspiration is reduced compared to grassland. If not, evapotranspiration rates of forests are higher. The interplay of these two counteracting factors depends on the latitude and the prevailing forest type in a region.