Theoretical impact of changing albedo on precipitation at the southernmost boundary of the ITCZ in South America

Christopher E. Doughty, Scott R. Loarie, Christopher B. Field

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


South America has undergone a large increase in albedo over the past decade as forests have been converted to crops and wetlands have been drained. Recent modeling literature and paleoclimate precipitation proxies have highlighted how changes in surface energy balance could affect the position of the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) in South America. Here, the authors investigate whether large continental increases in albedo in South America can likewise affect the southward migration of the ITCZ into South America using the NCAR Community Atmosphere Model, version 3.0 (CAM3.0) coupled with the Community Land Model, version 3.5 (CLM3.5) and a slab ocean model. Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) albedo data show that between 2001 and 2008 average albedo increased by 0.0025 albedo units across all South America and by 0.0032 albedo units between 0° and 24° latitude in South America and, because of this effect, the authors' simulations estimate an average ~ 23 mm yr-1 decrease in rainfall in the southern migration of the ITCZ (SMI) and an average ~ 9 mm yr-1 decrease in the entire Amazon basin. Large increases in albedo in South America decrease the northward atmospheric energy transport at the equator during the months the region of increased albedo is south of the ITCZ (May-July), leading to an apparent delay in its arrival to the SMI region and reduced rainfall in this region. However, because changing albedo is often associated with changing surface roughness, the authors model this separately and find that decreased surface roughness will have an opposite, increasing effect on precipitation. Therefore, they expect increasing albedo in South America associated with the drainage of wetlands to decrease precipitation, especially in the SMI region; however, in the case of deforestation, some of the decrease in precipitation from increased albedo may be offset by a corresponding decrease in surface roughness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalEarth Interactions
Issue number8
StatePublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Albedo
  • Amazon
  • ITCZ
  • South America
  • Surface roughness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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