Biofuels are attractive because they reduce the amount of carbon pumped into the atmosphere and mitigate global climate change, but for Brazil the shifting agricultural activity could have direct consequences on its climate by changing the landscape’s physical properties.

The researchers used multi-year regional climate model simulations to calculate the potential for local changes in temperature and precipitation patterns. Based largely on sugarcane having a higher albedo (reflectivity) compared to the existing vegetation, and the fact that the crop will undergo an annual harvest while the savanna does not, the researchers found that the shift to sugar plantations will lead to a strong seasonal temperature fluctuation.

They also found that the sugarcane harvest should lead to a net annual drop in the transfer of water from the land to the atmosphere, referred to as evapotranspiration (ET).  

“When harvest occurs, the plant’s ability to transfer water from its extensive root system to the atmosphere is reduced,” said Georgescu. “As the crop matures during the growing season, ET is once again brought back to levels prior to sugarcane conversion. Overall, we find the annually averaged ET reduction is about 0.3 millimeters per day.”

The authors suggest that such conditions could cause a reduction in regional precipitation, though no such decrease was found to be statistically significant in the modeling study.

“We do notice a decrease in evapotranspiration and we are confident in these impacts,” Georgescu explained. “But there is much more uncertainty in regards to precipitation and more work is required in this area.”

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