Shallow cumulus rooted in photosynthesis
Abstract:We investigate the interaction between plant evapotranspiration, controlled by photosynthesis (for a low vegetation cover by C3 and C4 grasses), and the moist thermals that are responsible for the formation and development of shallow cumulus clouds (SCu). We perform systematic numerical experiments at fine spatial scales using large-eddy simulations explicitly coupled to a plant-physiology model. To break down the complexity of the vegetation-atmospheric system at the diurnal scales, we design the following experiments with increasing complexity: (a) clouds that are transparent to radiation, (b) clouds that shade the surface from the incoming shortwave radiation and (c) plant stomata whose apertures react with an adjustment in time to cloud perturbations.
The shading by SCu leads to a strong spatial variability in photosynthesis and the surface energy balance. As a result, experiment (b) simulates SCu that are characterized by less extreme and less skewed values of the liquid water path and cloud-base height. These findings are corroborated by the calculation of characteristics lengths scales of the thermals and clouds using autocorrelation and spectral analysis methods. We find that experiments (a) and (b) are characterized by similar cloud cover evolution, but different cloud population characteristics. Experiment (b), including cloud shading, is characterized by smaller clouds, but closer to each other. By performing a sensitivity analysis on the exchange of water vapor and carbon dioxide at the canopy level, we show that the larger water-use efficiency of C4 grass leads to two opposing effects that directly influence boundary-layer clouds: the thermals below the clouds are more vigorous and deeper driven by a larger buoyancy surface flux (positive effect), but are characterized by less moisture content (negative effect). We conclude that under the investigated mid-latitude atmospheric and well-watered soil conditions, SCu over C4 grass fields is characterized by larger cloud cover and an enhanced liquid water path compared to C3 grass fields.