Articles | Volume 10, issue 8
16 Apr 2010
 | 16 Apr 2010

Do biomass burning aerosols intensify drought in equatorial Asia during El Niño?

M. G. Tosca, J. T. Randerson, C. S. Zender, M. G. Flanner, and P. J. Rasch

Abstract. During El Niño years, fires in tropical forests and peatlands in equatorial Asia create large regional smoke clouds. We characterized the sensitivity of these clouds to regional drought, and we investigated their effects on climate by using an atmospheric general circulation model. Satellite observations during 2000–2006 indicated that El Niño-induced regional drought led to increases in fire emissions and, consequently, increases in aerosol optical depths over Sumatra, Borneo and the surrounding ocean. Next, we used the Community Atmosphere Model (CAM) to investigate how climate responded to this forcing. We conducted two 30 year simulations in which monthly fire emissions were prescribed for either a high (El Niño, 1997) or low (La Niña, 2000) fire year using a satellite-derived time series of fire emissions. Our simulations included the direct and semi-direct effects of aerosols on the radiation budget within the model. We assessed the radiative and climate effects of anthropogenic fire by analyzing the differences between the high and low fire simulations. Fire aerosols reduced net shortwave radiation at the surface during August–October by 19.1±12.9 W m−2 (10%) in a region that encompassed most of Sumatra and Borneo (90° E–120° E, 5° S–5° N). The reductions in net shortwave radiation cooled sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and land surface temperatures by 0.5±0.3 and 0.4±0.2 °C during these months. Tropospheric heating from black carbon (BC) absorption averaged 20.5±9.3 W m−2 and was balanced by a reduction in latent heating. The combination of decreased SSTs and increased atmospheric heating reduced regional precipitation by 0.9±0.6 mm d−1 (10%). The vulnerability of ecosystems to fire was enhanced because the decreases in precipitation exceeded those for evapotranspiration. Together, the satellite and modeling results imply a possible positive feedback loop in which anthropogenic burning in the region intensifies drought stress during El Niño.

Final-revised paper