Articles | Volume 8, issue 12
Research article
15 Dec 2011
Research article |  | 15 Dec 2011

Implications of albedo changes following afforestation on the benefits of forests as carbon sinks

M. U. F. Kirschbaum, D. Whitehead, S. M. Dean, P. N. Beets, J. D. Shepherd, and A.-G. E. Ausseil

Abstract. Increased carbon storage with afforestation leads to a decrease in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and thus decreases radiative forcing and cools the Earth. However, afforestation also changes the reflective properties of the surface vegetation from more reflective pasture to relatively less reflective forest cover. This increase in radiation absorption by the forest constitutes an increase in radiative forcing, with a warming effect. The net effect of decreased albedo and carbon storage on radiative forcing depends on the relative magnitude of these two opposing processes.

We used data from an intensively studied site in New Zealand's Central North Island that has long-term, ground-based measurements of albedo over the full short-wave spectrum from a developing Pinus radiata forest. Data from this site were supplemented with satellite-derived albedo estimates from New Zealand pastures. The albedo of a well-established forest was measured as 13 % and pasture albedo as 20 %. We used these data to calculate the direct radiative forcing effect of changing albedo as the forest grew.

We calculated the radiative forcing resulting from the removal of carbon from the atmosphere as a decrease in radiative forcing of −104 GJ tC−1 yr−1. We also showed that the observed change in albedo constituted a direct radiative forcing of 2759 GJ ha−1 yr−1. Thus, following afforestation, 26.5 tC ha−1 needs to be stored in a growing forest to balance the increase in radiative forcing resulting from the observed albedo change. Measurements of tree biomass and albedo were used to estimate the net change in radiative forcing as the newly planted forest grew. Albedo and carbon-storage effects were of similar magnitude for the first four to five years after tree planting, but as the stand grew older, the carbon storage effect increasingly dominated. Averaged over the whole length of the rotation, the changes in albedo negated the benefits from increased carbon storage by 17–24 %.

Final-revised paper