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photo: Eva van Gorsel

Published: March 2, 2015

First published in IGBP's Global Change magazine 83, December 2014

The greening of the Southern Hemisphere

Features |

The 2010-2011 La Niña weather event brought lush vegetation to vast semi-arid regions in the Southern Hemisphere and altered the delicate balance of the global carbon sinks. Owen Gaffney explores how La Niña might change in the future and what that might imply.

Owen Gaffney is Director of Communications at IGBP.

In Australian Aboriginal mythology a frog called Tiddalik had an unquenchable thirst. He drank every last drop of water leaving a parched and barren landscape. The other animals, concerned for their future, hatched a plan to make Tiddalik laugh hard enough to return the water. Eventually, they made the frog laugh and he spewed out a torrent of water, flooding the land.

Starting in October 2010 through to March 2011, Australia endured an epic deluge straight out of Dreamtime. Queensland in the northeast was declared a disaster zone. An area the size of France, Germany and Italy combined lay under water. Thirty-five people died and 30,000 homes and businesses were damaged.

The average rainfall across Australia is about 453 mm, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. In contrast, the rainfall in 2010 and 2011 measured 703 mm and 708 mm respectively. The excess water was drawn from the oceans and a lot of it was retained by Australia’s large, continental interior basin. As a result, between the beginning of 2010 and mid-2011 global mean sea level fell 5 mm.

Life sprouted from dry and dusty soils across Australia. In May 2014, scientists associated with the Global Carbon Project reported in Nature that heavy rains across the Southern Hemisphere – from Australia to southern Africa and South America – led to a greening of these semi-arid regions.

Globally, this had a big effect on the carbon sink. In 2011, vegetation soaked up 4.1 billion tonnes of carbon. This is significantly more than usual, and around 40% of the annual emissions from burning fossil fuels. Models run by lead author Benjamin Poulter from Montana State University and CNRS in France showed that about 60% of the anomaly from the Southern Hemisphere was due to the greening in Australia alone.

“That’s quite remarkable,” said Pep Canadell, the Executive Director of the Global Carbon Project and an author on the paper. “Particularly, when you think that Australia is a very small player in global net primary production because it is such a dry place.”

Figure 1

Figure 1. The 2010/2011 La Niña affected the global hydrological cycle with significant impacts across the Southern Hemisphere. The global map shows the change in water mass from the beginning of 2010 (January-February-March average) to mid-2011 (March-April-May average). Blue indicates an increase in water mass over the continents. The map is from: Boening C et al. (2012). The 2011 La Niña: So strong, the oceans fell. Geosphysical Research Letters 39: L19602, doi:10.1029/2012GL053055.

Inset:  For several decades sea level has been rising 3.2 mm per year on average. Global mean sea level dropped 5 mm between the beginning of 010 and mid-2011. Topex/Poseidon, Jason-1 and Jason-2 satellite altimeter data (CSIRO).

Blame it on La Niña
La Niña is a periodic global phenomenon that brings wetter weather to Australia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, southern Africa and South America. North America feels it too, with drier conditions likely in the Southwest, Rockies and Great Plains, and more rain in the Pacific Northwest. La Niña is squarely to blame for the unusual greening across the Southern Hemisphere.

La Niña is part of a larger phenomenon, the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), first noticed by British academic Gilbert Walker in the early 20th century. While analysing weather data around India, Walker observed that the atmospheric pressure between the Indian and Pacific Oceans rocked back and forth like a seesaw. He linked this seesaw to shifts in temperature and rainfall across the region.

ENSO is driven by atmospheric and oceanic conditions in the Pacific. Trade winds blow warm water westwards from high-pressure areas off the coast of South America to the low pressure in the Pacific east off Indonesia and Australia. Warm waters build up along these coasts. Low pressure plus warm waters lead to evaporation and rain clouds, giving the region its tropical climate – this is the neutral phase of ENSO.

During La Niña this neutral phase intensifies. Westerly trade winds strengthen, thus pushing more warm water across the ocean. Water temperatures off the coast of Australia rise dramatically and, coupled with low pressures, this leads to much more water evaporating into the atmosphere. In 2011, scientists analysing data from NASA’s GRACE satellites, which monitor Earth’s gravitational field, noted that the unprecedented scale of ocean evaporation due to La Niña contributed to a drop in ocean mass of 1.8 trillion tonnes.

The Aboriginal tale of Tiddalik indicates that Australians have long memories of extended droughts punctuated by heavy rainfall. But is recent, anthropogenic global warming also to blame? La Niña varies in strength – sometimes it strikes hard, other times it can be weak. Sea-surface temperatures have been rising globally as a result of greenhouse-gas emissions. “The baseline has been elevated,” says Canadell. “When La Niña builds up on top of a warmer ocean, it is likely to release even more moisture to the atmosphere.”

Figure 1

Figure 2. Very high global Net Primary Productivity anomalies in 2011 (dark green: significantly more growth; red: significantly less growth). Map from: Bastos A et al. (2013). The global NPP dependence on ENSO: La Niña and the extraordinary year of 2011. Journal of Geophysical Research 118, doi:10.1002/jgrg.20100

Changing times
Researchers are keenly interested in attribution, but they also want to know more about future climate variability. “Are we going to get more droughts and more floods?” asks Canadell. The recently published Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that, generally, dry areas are set to get drier and wet areas wetter. This will lead to more fire-prone conditions across the semi-arid regions of the Southern Hemisphere, according to the report. But the 2011 La Niña suppressed fires by about 30%.

The scale of change brought by La Niña in semi-arid regions surprised researchers. Not least because such regions make up 40% of the world’s land area, so any alteration in vegetation patterns may have a significant effect on the global land carbon sink.

This is leading to increased efforts to understand future ENSO variability. Could, for example, a tendency for more and stronger La Niña events create a larger store of carbon on land? Not if strong and frequent La Niña events are balanced out in the long term by equally strong and frequent El Niño events, says Canadell. Any additional carbon stored during La Niña may then be released by the next El Niño.

Canadell reports that researchers are beginning to get a better grip on this. One recent paper indicates that the frequency of extreme El Niño events is set to increase in the future if CO2 emissions continue apace. Ongoing analyses will soon provide additional evidence about changes in the frequency of other extreme events related to La Niña. Would things simply balance out in the end?  

Not when you add life to the equation, ecologists say. Some evidence from the Long Term Ecological Research Network in the United States suggests that living systems take advantage of conditions during the good times, whereas new vegetation has a built-in resilience and fights for life when times get bad. So even if both El Niño and La Niña were to intensify in the future we could still see an overall carbon accumulation on land, says Canadell.

All this is on top of another trend: satellite data show that Australia has been on a gradual greening trend for the past 30 years. This is because, as predicted by the IPCC, wet areas in the subtropics are expanding to the north and south into some semi-arid regions in response to increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Crossing thresholds
All of this adds up to semi-arid systems in Australia and across the Southern Hemisphere experiencing more variability than once supposed. Although there have always been ups and downs, now it seems the upswings may reach higher up and the downs lower down, says Canadell. This has consequences for vulnerability. “You expose the system to crossing thresholds. Fire is one.” IPCC warns fires will become more likely across the Southern Hemisphere, with implications for the vulnerability of the land carbon sink.

This is a new layer of concern. “When we look at atmospheric carbon-dioxide variability we always look at the tropics. It’s always about the Amazon. It’s always about regions where massive amounts of photosynthesis is occurring.”

“We always thought [semi-arid regions] had a minor role in net primary productivity.” The reality is that they are more responsive to rain than previously assumed and, because they are so extensive, their impact on the Earth system is dramatic. “This is what makes them interesting.”

Poulter and colleagues have added a new piece to the jigsaw of the Earth system – the response to change in semi-arid regions. “These places function very differently from rainforests with alternative components and drivers. Fire is a big deal,” says Canadell.

The record-breaking 2011 La Niña event was undoubtedly remarkable. While it opens up new areas of scientific enquiry, one striking conclusion is the extent to which the ENSO controls much of the variability of the global land carbon sink. With half of our annual greenhouse-gas emissions ending up in the land and ocean carbon sinks, any new information on how the land sink may alter in the future is eagerly awaited.


Bastos A et al. (2013) Journal of Geophysical Research 118, doi:10.1002/jgrg.20100

Boening C et al. (2012) Geophysical Research Letters 39: L19602, doi:10.1029/2012GL053055

Poulter B et al. (2014) Nature 509: 600-603, doi:10.1038/nature13376

Poulter and Canadell (2014) Record rains made Australia a giant green carbon sink. The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/record-rains-made-australia-a-giant-green-global-carbon-sink-26646

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