Climate Dynamics

, Volume 33, Issue 2–3, pp 159–175 | Cite as

Effects of global irrigation on the near-surface climate

  • William J. SacksEmail author
  • Benjamin I. Cook
  • Nikolaus Buenning
  • Samuel Levis
  • Joseph H. Helkowski


Irrigation delivers about 2,600 km3 of water to the land surface each year, or about 2% of annual precipitation over land. We investigated how this redistribution of water affects the global climate, focusing on its effects on near-surface temperatures. Using the Community Atmosphere Model (CAM) coupled to the Community Land Model (CLM), we compared global simulations with and without irrigation. To approximate actual irrigation amounts and locations as closely as possible, we used national-level census data of agricultural water withdrawals, disaggregated with maps of croplands, areas equipped for irrigation, and climatic water deficits. We further investigated the sensitivity of our results to the timing and spatial extent of irrigation. We found that irrigation alters climate significantly in some regions, but has a negligible effect on global-average near-surface temperatures. Irrigation cooled the northern mid-latitudes; the central and southeast United States, portions of southeast China and portions of southern and southeast Asia cooled by ~0.5 K averaged over the year. Much of northern Canada, on the other hand, warmed by ~1 K. The cooling effect of irrigation seemed to be dominated by indirect effects like an increase in cloud cover, rather than by direct evaporative cooling. The regional effects of irrigation were as large as those seen in previous studies of land cover change, showing that changes in land management can be as important as changes in land cover in terms of their climatic effects. Our results were sensitive to the area of irrigation, but were insensitive to the details of irrigation timing and delivery.


Irrigation GCM Agriculture Land management 



We thank NCAR’s Advanced Study Program for sponsoring the “Art of Climate Modeling” summer colloquium, where we began this work. Mark Decker was also involved in that initial stage of the project. Jon Foley, Chris Kucharik and Mutlu Ozdogan all provided many helpful suggestions throughout every stage of this project. WJS was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, BIC by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Global Change Postdoctoral Program, and NB by a Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies student fellowship and a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate and Global Change Program. The simulations were performed on NCAR supercomputers. NCAR is funded by the National Science Foundation.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • William J. Sacks
    • 1
    Email author
  • Benjamin I. Cook
    • 2
    • 3
  • Nikolaus Buenning
    • 4
  • Samuel Levis
    • 5
  • Joseph H. Helkowski
    • 6
  1. 1.Center for Sustainability and the Global EnvironmentUniversity of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA
  2. 2.Ocean and Climate PhysicsLamont-Doherty Earth ObservatoryPalisadesUSA
  3. 3.NASA Goddard Institute for Space StudiesNew YorkUSA
  4. 4.Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental SciencesUniversity of Colorado-BoulderBoulderUSA
  5. 5.Climate and Global Dynamics DivisionNational Center for Atmospheric ResearchBoulderUSA
  6. 6.Earth TechMiamiUSA

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