CLIMATE, LAND COVER CHANGE AND THE SEASONALITY OF PHOTOSYNTHETIC ACTIVITY AND EVAPOTRANSPIRATION IN TROPICAL ECOSYSTEMS
Tropical ecosystems play a key role in regulating the global climate and the carbon cycle thanks to the large amounts of water and carbon exchanged with the atmosphere. These biogeochemical fluxes are largely the result of high photosynthetic rates. Photosynthetic activity is highly dependent on climate and vegetation, and therefore can be easily modified along with changes in those two factors. A better understanding of what drives or alters photosynthetic activity in the tropics will lead to more accurate predictions of climate and subsequent effects on ecosystems. The seasonal pattern of photosynthetic activity is one of the main uncertainties that we still have about tropical ecosystems. However, this seasonality of tropical vegetation and its relationship to climate change and land cover is key to understanding how these ecosystems could be affected and have an effect on climate.
In this dissertation, I present three projects to improve our understanding about tropical ecosystems and how their photosynthetic activity is affected by climate and land cover change. The lack of field-based data has been one of the main limiting factors in our study of tropical ecosystems. Therefore, in these projects I extensively use remote sensing-derived data to analyze large scale and long term patterns. In the first study, I looked at the seasonal relationship between photosynthetic activity and climate, and how model simulations represent it. Vegetation in most of the tropics is either positively correlated with both water and light, or positively correlated with one of them and negatively with the other. Ecosystem models largely underestimate positive correlations with light and overestimate positive correlations with water. In the second study, I focus on the effect of land cover change in photosynthetic activity and transpiration in a highly deforested region in the Amazon. I find that land cover change decreases tropical forests photosynthetic activity and transpiration during the dry season. Also, land cover change increases the range of photosynthetic activity and transpiration in forests and shrublands. These effects are intensified with increasing land cover change. In the last project, I quantify the amount of change in evapotranspiration due to land cover change in the entire Amazon basin. Our remote sensing-derived estimates are well aligned with model predictions published in the past three decades. These results increase our confidence in climate models representation of evapotranspiration in the Amazon.
Findings from this dissertation highlight (1) the importance of the close relationship between climate and photosynthetic activity and (2) how land cover change is altering that relationship. We hope our results can build on our knowledge about tropical ecosystems and how they could change in the future. We also expect our analysis to be used for model benchmarking and tropical ecosystem monitoring.