Spatial patterns and recent trends in the climate of tropical rainforest regions

Yadvinder Malhi, James Wright


We present an analysis of the mean climate and climatic trends of tropical rainforest regions over the period 1960–1998, with the aid of explicit maps of forest cover and climatological databases. Until the mid–1970s most regions showed little trend in temperature, and the western Amazon experienced a net cooling probably associated with an interdecadal oscillation. Since the mid–1970s, all tropical rainforest regions have experienced a strong warming at a mean rate of 0.26 ± 0.05 °C per decade, in synchrony with a global rise in temperature that has been attributed to the anthropogenic greenhouse effect. Over the study period, precipitation appears to have declined in tropical rainforest regions at a rate of 1.0 ± 0.8% per decade (p < 5%), declining sharply in northern tropical Africa (at 3–4% per decade), declining marginally in tropical Asia and showing no significant trend in Amazonia. There is no evidence so far of a decline in precipitation in eastern Amazonia, a region thought vulnerable to climate–change–induced drying. The strong drying trend in Africa suggests that this should be a priority study region for understanding the impact of drought on tropical rainforests. We develop and use a dry–season index to study variations in the length and intensity of the dry season. Only African and Indian tropical rainforests appear to have seen a significant increase in dry–season intensity. In terms of interannual variability, the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the primary driver of temperature variations across the tropics and of precipitation fluctuations for large areas of the Americas and southeast Asia. The relation between ENSO and tropical African precipitation appears less direct.

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