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On the stability of the atmosphere-vegetation system in the Sahara/Sahel region

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Brovkin, V., Claussen, M., Petoukhov, V., & Ganopolski, A. (1998). On the stability of the atmosphere-vegetation system in the Sahara/Sahel region. Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres, 103(D24), 31613-31624. doi:10.1029/1998JD200006.

A conceptual model has been developed for the analysis of atmosphere-vegetation interaction in subtropical deserts. The model can exhibit multiple stable states-in the system: a "desert" equilibrium with low precipitation and absent vegetation and a "green" equilibrium with moderate precipitation and permanent vegetation cover. The conceptual model is applied to interpret the results of two climate-vegetation models: a comprehensive coupled atmosphere-biome model and a simple hox model. In both applications, two stable states exist for the western Sahara/Sahel region for the present-day climate, and the only green equilibrium is found for the mid-Holocene climate. The latter agrees well with paleoreconstructions of Sahara/Sahel climate and vegetation. It is shown that for present-day climate the green equilibrium is less probable than the desert equilibrium, and this explains the existence of the Sahara desert as it is today. The difference in albedo between the desert and vegetation cover appears to be the main parameter that controls an existence of multiple stable states. The Charney's mechanism of self-stabilization of subtropical deserts is generalized by accounting for atmospheric hydrology, the heat and moisture exchange at the side boundaries, and taking into account the dynamic properties of the surface. The generalized mechanism explains the self-stabilization of both desert and vegetation in the western Sahara/Sahel region, The role of surface roughness in climate-vegetation interaction is shown to be of secondary importance in comparison with albedo. Furthermore, for the high albedo, precipitation increases with increasing roughness while, for the low albedo, the opposite is found.