Category Archives: biotic pump

Does biotic pump work on a small scale?

“Biotic pump theory explains the role of forests in atmospheric circulation on a planetary scale. However, if it is a major mechanism behind the water cycle it should also be applicable on a smaller scale (a watershed for example) influencing creation of a microclimate and a pattern of water distribution. Do you have any data to suggest smaller scale biotic pump action? After all Nature works on principle of fractals and it should be applicable to any scale. This seems to be evident from empirical work of Peter Andrews on restoration projects in Australia. His Natural Sequence Farming principles of landscape management described in his books “On the Brink” and “Back from the Brink” I think confirms it.”
Answered 11 December 2012.
Question author: Sergei Karabut.
Asked 20 November 2012.

The biotic pump mechanism transports atmospheric moisture from the ocean to the forest-covered continent. This large-scale process is based on cumulative performance of many similar small-scale functional units in the forest. We termed these units “local ecological communities”. A local ecological community in the forest ecosystem is a tree with all the spatially associated local biota (including soil) — including bacteria, fungi, small invertebrates etc. Please see Section 4.3 of Gorshkov et al. (2004) for a discussion.

In simple words, the biotic pump emerges as a sum of reactions of individual trees and the associated organisms. Information about how to perform the needed reactions, like, for example, production of condensation nuclei by tree-dwelling fungi, is written in the genome of forest species. This information appeared in the course of biological evolution. They must therefore impart some noticeable advantage to individual ecological communities on a local scale. (Please see Section 4 “Biological principles of the biotic pump of atmospheric moisture” in Makarieva and Gorshkov (2007) for a more extensive discussion of this topic.)

To evaluate the biotic pump performance of a single tree or a small forested area it is necessary to measure how the local influx of atmospheric moisture has changed upon the tree re-growth. Whether it is measurable depends on the sensitivity of natural selection. If it is higher than the accuracy of our measurements, it will not be possible to detect a small-scale biotic pump. The signal from a small area will be lost in the high fluctuations of the local moisture transport and rainfall processes.

The biotic pump enabled life to colonize land. The first plants capable of running the pump originated at the coastline. This narrow band of plants was obviously unable to draw moisture far inland. However, these plants might have been able to slightly increase local rainfall making the prevailing winds to slightly change their path. For example, the plants could enhance intensity of local condensation and modify local pressure gradients by emitting biogenic condensation nuclei. Gradually spreading inland the plants were bringing moisture with them — by enhancing the atmospheric water vapor flow. Thus, a group of trees planted in the desert may not have any biotic pump potential at all, as it has no link to the oceanic source of moisture.

On the other hand, the biotic pump is based on a large number of evolutionary properties of various species. Among them is the ability of the ecological community to efficiently store moisture in soil, to regulate the vertical temperature gradient under the canopy, to modify aerodynamic roughness of the area etc. These properties profoundly influence the local microclimate and are readily observable on a small scale.

Morning fog

U.S. drought and forest degradation

Pederson et al. 2012 investigated the recurrence of droughts in some parts of the U.S. starting from the end of the 17th century. The study was motivated by the recent increase in drought frequency — the researchers attempted to look at it from a historical perspective. It was concluded that the period from approx. 1700 to 1820 saw particularly many drought events, while the 20th century as a whole was more comfortable.

It is instructive to compare this result with the dynamics of forest cover change in some states:

Forest cover dynamics in the U.S.

Fig. 3 of Fitzjarrald et al. 2001 Journal of Climate 14: 598. Dynamics of forest cover in some states.

One can see that starting from 1700 and until approximately the middle of the 19th century forest cover in the U.S. was being eradicated most rapidly. Then forests started to regrow and had been increasing in size for more than a century. Data for the last twenty years are missing, but one can notice a declining trend in forest cover to be there again starting from the 1990s. And during the last twenty years the droughts came back.

This is consistent with the biotic pump concept. Degradation of forest cover in Eurasia and North America make the two continents drier. As the remaining forests compete for moisture of the Atlantic, the growing drought zone migrates from one continent to another. For example, when in 2010 there was a disastrous drought in Russia, in the U.S., on the contrary, the percentage of land experiencing drought was exceptionally low.

It would be interestig to analyze similar data for Russian droughts and Russian forests.

New biotic pump paper: How forests manage aerial rivers

Makarieva A.M., Gorshkov V.G., Li B.-L. Revisiting forest impact on atmospheric water vapor transport and precipitation. Theoretical and Applied Climatology, doi: 10.1007/s00704-012-0643-9.

Water cycle on land owes itself to the atmospheric moisture transport from the ocean. Properties of the aerial rivers that ensure the “run-in” of water vapor inland to compensate for the gravitational “run-off” of liquid water from land to the ocean are of direct relevance for the regional water availability. The biotic pump concept clarifies why the moist aerial rivers flow readily from ocean to land when the latter gives home to a large forest — and why they are reluctant to do so when the forest is absent.

Compared to our previous studies, in the new paper we used a global (rather than land only) precipitation database that allows one to compare precipitation patterns on land to those over the adjacent ocean. We extended our previous approach to analyze seasonal (rather than annual only) changes in the spatial precipitation patterns in world’s major forest regions. Apart from the tropical rainforests, we analyzed precipitation distribution across world’s longest (>7,000 km) forest belt, the Eurasian boreal forest. The data describe how the active summer forest wins the water “tug-of-war” with the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, in summer the forest steals most moisture inland and depletes the oceanic precipitation. The dormant winter forest loses this war to the ocean, such that precipitation over the Atlantic Ocean in winter, despite the oceanic evaporation is minimal, rises threefold compared to summer months. Analyzed for comparison, the unforested Australia is unable to draw moisture far inland in either wet or dry season, i.e., irrespective of moisture availability over the neighboring ocean.

While it is increasingly common to blame global change for any regional water cycle disruption, the biotic pump evidence suggests that the burden of responsibility rather rests with the regional land use practices. On large areas on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, temperate and boreal forests are intensely harvested for timber and biofuel. These forests are artificially maintained in the early successional stages and are never allowed to recover to the natural climax state. The water regulation potential of such forests is low, while their susceptibility to fires and pests is high. The exploited forests are degrading; the relatively undisturbed old-growth forests are shrinking in size. A conflict (rarely appreciated or discussed) exists between the modern commercial value of a forest and the forest’s ability to regulate the regional water cycle and to be self-sustainable: these parameters cannot be maximized simultaneously. Therefore, the regional water safety is not about keeping the live forest biomass stationary. It is about keeping it stationary in an environmentally competent condition.

You are welcome to visit to download the paper, the Electronic Appendix, as well as to have a look at some animated graphs.

Biotic pump 2012: Interview to

Full text with editorial summary:
Jeremy Hance (February 01, 2012).
New meteorological theory argues that the world’s forests are rainmakers. 

1.>> Will you tell us how the biotic pump works?
2.>> Why do you associate the biotic pump with natural forests rather than with individual tree species? Cannot a tree plantation act as biotic pump?
3.>> Have there been any significant changes to your biotic pump theory over the last couple of years?
4.>> Have you seen wider acceptance in the scientific community for your theory?
5.>> Can you give an example of why the current understanding of condensation and precipitation is wrong?
6.>> Recent evidence has linked the decline and fall of the Maya civilization to deforestation leading to less precipitation. How could the biotic pump theory connect to this?
7.>> How do you see deforestation in the Amazon as impacting regional precipitation?
8.>> How do you think widespread deforestation will effect the hydrological cycle of places like the Indonesian islands? Given their smaller size, do they need the biotic pump?
9.>> Does the biotic pump theory apply to boreal forests, such as those in Russia, as well?
10.>> Does biotic pump theory modify our current understanding of global climate change?
11.>> What policy changes does the biotic theory suggest for governments worldwide?

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