New study: Deforestation has chaotic impact on temperature, climate

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon

Forget the old question of "if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around, does it make a sound?" If a forest dies, the other side of the world can feel it. That's the finding of a new study examining how local deforestation can reshape global climate like a woodland version of El Niño.

The last few decades of El Niño events have made people at least vaguely familiar with the idea that changes in ocean currents can alter distant atmospheric and climate patterns. A shift in the Pacific's tropical waters can, say, make it suddenly rain less in Seattle and more in Los Angeles. Similarly, researchers at the University of Washington have now used climate models to explore whether extreme deforestation can have the same kinds of ricocheting, interconnected effects on distant ecosystems.

RELATED: Photos of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest through the years

46 PHOTOS
Brazil Amazon rainforest in danger, deforestation through the years
See Gallery
Brazil Amazon rainforest in danger, deforestation through the years
ARCOS FALLS, PRESIDENTE FIGUEIREDO, AMAZONAS STATE, BRAZIL - 2015/09/09: Cachoeira das Arcos ( Arcos Falls ) at Presidente Figueiredo, Amazonas State, Brazil - ecotourism at Amazon rainforest. (Photo by Ricardo Siqueira/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BRAZIL - 2015/08/28: Transportation of timber logs, Amazon rainforest deforestation, Brazil. (Photo by Ricardo Beliel/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ANCHIETA HIGHWAY - SERRA DO MAR, SAO PAULO STATE, BRAZIL - 2015/11/01: Rodovia Anchieta (Anchieta Highway, official designation SP-150), a highway connection between Sao Paulo city and the Atlantic coast, the cities of Cubatao and Santos, in Brazil. In the plateau, the highway traverses a picturesque region of dams and rain forests. It is a major pride of the Brazilian engineering, because it was built with a great number of bridges and tunnels along the steep cliffs of Serra do Mar. (Photo by Ricardo Siqueira/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
SANTUARIO FALLS, PRESIDENTE FIGUEIREDO, AMAZONAS STATE, BRAZIL - 2015/09/09: Santuario Falls ( Cachoeira do Santuario ) in the municipality of Presidente Figueiredo, Amazonas State, Amazon rainforest, Brazil. (Photo by Ricardo Siqueira/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ATLANTIC RAINFOREST, BRAZIL - 2015/08/28: Wooly spider monkey, Muriqui or mono-carvoeiro, (Brachyteles arachnoids) the acrobat of the Brazilian forests, the largest primate of the Americas, an endangered species, Atlantic rainforest, Brazil. Former latin name: Brachyteles arachnoids. New latin name: Brachyteles hypoxanthus. Estação Biológica de Caratinga, Fazenda Montes Claros, Minas Gerais State. (Photo by Jose Caldas/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ATLANTIC RAINFOREST, BRAZIL - 2015/08/28: Wooly spider monkey, Muriqui or mono-carvoeiro, (Brachyteles arachnoids) the acrobat of the Brazilian forests, the largest primate of the Americas, an endangered species, Atlantic rainforest, Brazil. Former latin name: Brachyteles arachnoids. New latin name: Brachyteles hypoxanthus. Estação Biológica de Caratinga, Fazenda Montes Claros, Minas Gerais State. (Photo by Jose Caldas/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BANANAL ISLAND, TOCANTINS STATE, BRAZIL - 2015/07/30: Flooded dense forest by the Javaé River, high biodiversity, Bananal Island, Tocantins State, Amazon, Brazil. (Photo by Jose Caldas/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
AMAZON, ACRE STATE, BRAZIL - 2015/06/30: Amazon rainforest burning, forest clearance for cattle raising in Acre State, Brazil. (Photo by Ricardo Funari/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
AMAZON, BRAZIL - 2015/06/24: Thorns at Tucumã palm tree ( Astrocaryum aculeatum ), Amazon rain forest, Brazil - this plant has edible fruit which may be used for production of biodiesel. (Photo by Lena Trindade/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
RONDONIA STATTE, BRAZIL - 2015/06/24: Rainbow at Mamoré river, Amazon rain forest, Rondonia State, Brazil. (Photo by Lena Trindade/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ALTA FLORESTA, MATO GROSSO STATE, BRAZIL - 2015/05/04: Dense tropical forest, canopy trees, aerial view of Amazon rain forest at Alta Floresta, Mato Grosso State, Brazil. (Photo by Lena Trindade/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
AMAZON, BRAZIL - 2015/03/15: Aerial view of Amazon rain forest, river curves and dense forest with high biodiversity, Brazil. (Photo by Ricardo Funari/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Cut logs sit at a sawmill in Anapu, Brazil, on Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. The rate of deforestation Brazil's Amazon rain forest dropped 18 percent over the last year, according to a report by the country's environment minister in November. Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Timber is stacked in piles at a sawmill in Anapu, Brazil, on Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. The rate of deforestation Brazil's Amazon rain forest dropped 18 percent over the last year, according to a report by the country's environment minister in November. Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A section of burnt forest stands in the southern of Amazonian state of Para, near Belo Monte, Brazil on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. The rate of deforestation Brazil's Amazon rain forest dropped 18 percent over the last year, according to a report by the country's environment minister in November. Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Cattle graze near a burnt section of rain forest in the southern part of the Amazonian state of Para, near Belo Monte, Brazil, on Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014. The rate of deforestation Brazil's Amazon rain forest dropped 18 percent over the last year, according to a report by the country's environment minister in November. Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A tree stump stands in the rain forest in the southern part of the Amazonian state of Para, near Belo Monte, Brazil, on Monday, Dec. 15, 2014. The rate of deforestation Brazil's Amazon rain forest dropped 18 percent over the last year, according to a report by the country's environment minister in November. Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg via Getty Images
FILE - In this Sunday, March 2, 2008 file photo, Brazil policemen guard a raft loaded with confiscated logs that were illegally cut from the Amazon rainforest, at the Guama river, in Belem, state of Para, Brazil. Money raised by governments and corporations hasnât managed to halt the destruction of the worldâs rainforests _ an area the size of Greece is lost every year _ so a U.S. campaign is now inviting individuals to chip in. The U.S. Agency for International Development and Code REDD, a California-based advocacy group, on Tuesday Feb. 10, 2015, will announce the launch of an online store for carbon offsets, certificates that fund forest conservation projects in tropical countries. (AP Photo/Renato Chalu, File)
Demonstrators carry signs that read in Portuguese "Without rainforests there's no water," left, "Reforest the watersheds now," center, and "Water" in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. Sao Paulo is suffering its worst drought in decades. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2008 file photo, charcoal kilns are seen in Tailandia, state of Para, Brazil. Money raised by governments and corporations hasnât managed to halt the destruction of the worldâs rainforests _ an area the size of Greece is lost every year _ so a U.S. campaign is now inviting individuals to chip in. The U.S. Agency for International Development and Code REDD, a California-based advocacy group, on Tuesday Feb. 10, 2015, will announce the launch of an online store for carbon offsets, certificates that fund forest conservation projects in tropical countries. (AP Photo/Renato Chalu, File)
A deforested area is seen near Novo Progresso in the northern state of Para, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009. The Brazilian Amazon is arguably the world's biggest natural defense against global warming, acting as a "sink," or absorber, of carbon dioxide. But it is also a great contributor to warming. About 75 percent of Brazil's emissions come from rainforest clearing, as vegetation burns and felled trees rot. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
An illegal gold mine is seen inside a national park near Novo Progresso in the northern state of Para, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009. The Brazilian Amazon is arguably the world's biggest natural defense against global warming, acting as a "sink," or absorber, of carbon dioxide. But it is also a great contributor to warming. About 75 percent of Brazil's emissions come from rainforest clearing, as vegetation burns and felled trees rot. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
Cattle graze in a illegally deforested farm near Novo Progresso in the northern state of Para, Brazil, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2009. The Brazilian Amazon is arguably the world's biggest natural defense against global warming, acting as a "sink," or absorber, of carbon dioxide. But it is also a great contributor to warming. About 75 percent of Brazil's emissions come from rainforest clearing, as vegetation burns and felled trees rot. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
Iguazu falls is seen along the border of Brazil with Argentina, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009. The Atlantic Forest, home to the famous Iguazu falls and numerous plant and animal species, is one of the most endangered rainforests in the world. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)
ACRE, BRAZIL - 2014/11/17: Flames and heat, detail of Amazon rainforest burning, environmental degradation caused by deforestation. (Photo by Ricardo Funari/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ACRE, BRAZIL - 2014/11/17: Worker carries his chainsaw at sunset after a hard day of labor, Amazon rainforest deforestation. (Photo by Ricardo Funari/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ACRE, BRAZIL - 2014/11/17: Aerial view of Amazon rainforest deforestation and farm management for livestock. Photo shows four stages in land management on a big cattle farm in the Amazon: In the foreground, naked clear land where the forest has recently been burned and grass will be grown. On the right, a pasture waiting for the cattle. In the background, the forest being burned to make pasture. On the left, native forest, which will soon enough undergo the same. (Photo by Ricardo Funari/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
ACRE, BRAZIL - 2014/11/17: Logging, Amazon rainforest clearance, workers cut down a large tree using chainsaw. (Photo by Ricardo Funari/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BRAZIL - 2014/11/10: Logging, worker carries his chainsaw at sunset after a hard day of labor, Amazon rainforest deforestation. (Photo by Ricardo Beliel/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BRAZIL - 2014/11/10: Amazon rainforest burning, deforestation for livestock. (Photo by Ricardo Beliel/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BRAZIL - 2014/11/10: Burned trees in Amazon rainforest, land clearance for livestock. (Photo by Ricardo Beliel/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BRAZIL - 2014/11/10: Logging, Amazon rainforest, firewood for charcoal production transported by train for feeding the pig iron industry. (Photo by BrazilPhotos.com/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BRAZIL - 2014/11/10: Logging, transportation of tree truncks floating on river water, Amazon rainforest deforestation. (Photo by BrazilPhotos.com/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
PARA, BRAZIL - 2014/11/10: Transportation of firewood for charcoal production - Amazon rainforest deforestation for feeding the iron pig industry. (Photo by Ricardo Beliel/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
View of an illegal felling area in the Amazon forest during an overflight by Greenpeace activists over areas of illegal exploitation of timber, as part of the second stage of the "The Amazon's Silent Crisis" report, in the state of Para, Brazil, on October 14, 2014. According to Greenpeace's report, timber trucks carry at night illegally felled trees to sawmills, which then process them and export the wood as if it was from a legal origin to France, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands. AFP PHOTO / Raphael Alves (Photo credit should read RAPHAEL ALVES/AFP/Getty Images)
The shadow of Greenpeace's aircraft casts over the trees in the Amazon forest during an overflight by Greenpeace activists over areas of illegal exploitation of timber, as part of the second stage of the 'The Amazon's Silent Crisis' report, in the state of Para, Brazil, on October 14, 2014. According to Greenpeace's report, timber trucks carry at night illegally felled trees to sawmills, which then process them and export the wood as if it was from a legal origin to France, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands. AFP PHOTO / Raphael Alves (Photo credit should read RAPHAEL ALVES/AFP/Getty Images)
View of a forest fire in the Amazon forest during an overflight by Greenpeace activists over areas of illegal exploitation of timber, as part of the second stage of the 'The Amazon's Silent Crisis' report, in the state of Para, Brazil, on October 14, 2014. According to Greenpeace's report, timber trucks carry at night illegally felled trees to sawmills, which then process them and export the wood as if it was from a legal origin to France, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands. AFP PHOTO / Raphael Alves (Photo credit should read RAPHAEL ALVES/AFP/Getty Images)
View of the so called Odami sawmill during an overflight by Greenpeace activists over areas of illegal exploitation of timber, as part of the second stage of the 'The Amazon's Silent Crisis' report, in the state of Para, Brazil, on October 14, 2014. According to Greenpeace's report, timber trucks carry at night illegally felled trees to sawmills, which then process them and export the wood as if it was from a legal origin to France, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands. AFP PHOTO / Raphael Alves (Photo credit should read RAPHAEL ALVES/AFP/Getty Images)
View of a tree in a deforested area in the middle of the Amazon jungle during an overflight by Greenpeace activists over areas of illegal exploitation of timber, as part of the second stage of the 'The Amazon's Silent Crisis' report, in the state of Para, Brazil, on October 14, 2014. According to Greenpeace's report, timber trucks carry at night illegally felled trees to sawmills, which then process them and export the wood as if it was from a legal origin to France, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands. AFP PHOTO / Raphael Alves (Photo credit should read RAPHAEL ALVES/AFP/Getty Images)
View of a deforested area in the middle of the Amazon jungle during an overflight by Greenpeace activists over areas of illegal exploitation of timber, as part of the second stage of the 'The Amazon's Silent Crisis' report, in the state of Para, Brazil, on October 14, 2014. According to Greenpeace's report, timber trucks carry at night illegally felled trees to sawmills, which then process them and export the wood as if it was from a legal origin to France, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands. AFP PHOTO / Raphael Alves (Photo credit should read RAPHAEL ALVES/AFP/Getty Images)
View of a forest fire in the Amazon forest during an overflight by Greenpeace activists over areas of illegal exploitation of timber, as part of the second stage of the 'The Amazon's Silent Crisis' report, in the state of Para, Brazil, on October 14, 2014. According to Greenpeace's report, timber trucks carry at night illegally felled trees to sawmills, which then process them and export the wood as if it was from a legal origin to France, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands. AFP PHOTO / Raphael Alves (Photo credit should read RAPHAEL ALVES/AFP/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 21: Particpants walk in the climate march along Ipanema beach on September 21, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Protests calling for curbs in greenhouse gas emissions were scheduled for today in 150 countries ahead a U.N. summit on climate change. The Amazon rainforest, mostly located in Brazil, produces about 20 percent of the earth's oxygen but is threatened by deforestation. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 21: Participants chant and sing during the climate march along Ipanema beach on September 21, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Protests calling for curbs in greenhouse gas emissions were scheduled for today in 150 countries ahead a U.N. summit on climate change. The Amazon rainforest, mostly located in Brazil, produces about 20 percent of the earth's oxygen but is threatened by deforestation. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 21: Particpants walk in the climate march along Ipanema beach on September 21, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Protests calling for curbs in greenhouse gas emissions were scheduled for today in 150 countries ahead a U.N. summit on climate change. The Amazon rainforest, mostly located in Brazil, produces about 20 percent of the earth's oxygen but is threatened by deforestation. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 21: A man holds a flag with a green heart during the climate march along Ipanema beach on September 21, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Protests calling for curbs in greenhouse gas emissions were scheduled for today in 150 countries ahead a U.N. summit on climate change. The Amazon rainforest, mostly located in Brazil, produces about 20 percent of the earth's oxygen but is threatened by deforestation. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

"If a forest dies, it doesn't just matter for its neighbors, it matters for distant plants that are living really far away," co-author and climate researcher Abigail Swann told Vocativ. "The climate system can communicate what happened in one place, and that might be good or bad for forests somewhere else, but it's not limited to just the local areas."

The loss of forests can actually make nearby areas cooler, at least temporarily, because deforested regions reflect more sunlight than wooded areas. On a big enough scale, the deaths of forests can change how much sunlight is absorbed in entire hemispheres, which would then alter precipitation paths and other atmospheric activity. Different areas will benefit or suffer from those disturbances, and the effect on those forests can drive still further changes. It's an intricate, crisscrossing mess, and this climate model suggests that, even if the effects aren't big enough to be observed yet, they likely will be as climate change worsens and the effects on local ecosystems become more extreme.

"Look at how forest mortality has been increasing over the past decade and it's predicted to increase going into the future. You might expect to see some really large changes to the land surface that are driven by climate change in some part, and also by things like human deforestation," said Swann.

RELATED: Amazing photos of the Boreal Forest

16 PHOTOS
Boreal Forest
See Gallery
Boreal Forest
The Alaska Highway is surrounded by boreal forest running north towards Whitehorse, Yukon in this file photo taken June 21, 2007. A report released by Greenpeace warned that Canada threatens to ignite a "carbon bomb" that will exasperate global warming if it continues heavy logging in areas of boreal forest. The logging and other development in the forest releases the carbon it has trapped from the atmosphere over decades, potentially producing more greenhouse gases than from burning fossil fuels, the group charged. Photo taken June 21, 2007. REUTERS/Andy Clark/Files (CANADA)
BRITISH COLOMBIA, CANADA - 2009/06/25: Boreal forest. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 2005: United States of America, Alaska, Top Of The World Highway, Boreal forest. (Photo By DEA / F. BARBAGALLO/De Agostini/Getty Images)
SWEDEN - CIRCA 2003: Boreal forest, island of Gotland, Sweden. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Boreal Forest
wide alaskan landscape
View of the northern spruce forest from above. Russia
The pechora river running through the taiga in the komi region of siberia, 1990s. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
ALASKA, UNITED STATES - 2009/06/23: Boreal forest. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 2005: United States of America, Alaska, Top Of The World Highway, Boreal forest. (Photo By DEA / F. BARBAGALLO/De Agostini/Getty Images)
SIBERIA, RUSSIA - 1995/01/01: Russia, Siberia, Yenisey River, Near Lebed, Sunset Over Taiga Forest. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
(Photo: Dru!/Flickr)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

The researchers' climate models give some sense of how big the impacts could be. For instance, the continued loss of the Amazon rainforest would ultimately make Siberia colder, but plants and trees in the southeastern United States would likely benefit. The Amazon's neighboring forests in South America would also do well, as the loss of the Amazon could increase rainfall during the summer months. Those precise effects might not end up happening in reality, but they point to how disruptive the loss of forests could be on a global scale. In any case, it will take time to tease out exactly how the world's forests connect with climate.

"It's a global system," said Swann. "We expect the atmosphere has preferred ways in which it responds to being poked. We don't suspect that this is random, but it can be connected to just about anywhere."

As for how this affects humanity's approach to climate change more generally, Swann said this adds another complicating factor when considering how best to preserve a warming planet. The research is another reminder of just how interconnected the world's climate system is, when even a seemingly local change can have potentially global consequences.

The post Deforestation Is Going To Cause More Climate Chaos Than We Imagined appeared first on Vocativ.

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.

From Our Partners