Surface temperatures reveal the patterns of vegetation water stress and their environmental drivers across the tropical Americas

Julia K. Green, Ashley Ballantyne, Rose Abramoff, Pierre Gentine, David Makowski, Philippe Ciais

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Vegetation is a key component in the global carbon cycle as it stores ~450 GtC as biomass, and removes about a third of anthropogenic CO2 emissions. However, in some regions, the rate of plant carbon uptake is beginning to slow, largely because of water stress. Here, we develop a new observation-based methodology to diagnose vegetation water stress and link it to environmental drivers. We used the ratio of remotely sensed land surface to near surface atmospheric temperatures (LST/Tair) to represent vegetation water stress, and built regression tree models (random forests) to assess the relationship between LST/Tair and the main environmental drivers of surface energy fluxes in the tropical Americas. We further determined ecosystem traits associated with water stress and surface energy partitioning, pinpointed critical thresholds for water stress, and quantified changes in ecosystem carbon uptake associated with crossing these critical thresholds. We found that the top drivers of LST/Tair, explaining over a quarter of its local variability in the study region, are (1) radiation, in 58% of the study region; (2) water supply from precipitation, in 30% of the study region; and (3) atmospheric water demand from vapor pressure deficits (VPD), in 22% of the study region. Regions in which LST/Tair variation is driven by radiation are located in regions of high aboveground biomass or at high elevations, while regions in which LST/Tair is driven by water supply from precipitation or atmospheric demand tend to have low species richness. Carbon uptake by photosynthesis can be reduced by up to 80% in water-limited regions when critical thresholds for precipitation and air dryness are exceeded simultaneously, that is, as compound events. Our results demonstrate that vegetation structure and diversity can be important for regulating surface energy and carbon fluxes over tropical regions.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)2940-2955
    Number of pages16
    JournalGlobal Change Biology
    Issue number9
    StatePublished - May 2022


    • carbon cycle
    • land surface temperatures
    • surface energy fluxes
    • tropical vegetation
    • vegetation water stress
    • water cycle


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