"Our work shows that the 2002-03 El Nino drought in eastern Australia was on average two degrees hotter because of vegetation clearing," Dr McAlpine said.
"Based on this research, it would be fair to say that the current drought has been made worse by past clearing of native vegetation."
The research’s co-authors are the UQ’s Dr Hamish McGowan, Associate Professor Stuart Phinn and Dr Ravinesh Deo as well as Dr Peter Lawrence of the University of Colorado and Dr Ian Watterson of CSIRO.
Dr McAlpine said their research showed average summer rainfall decreased by between four and 12 per cent in eastern Australia, and four and eight per cent in southwest Western Australia – regions that have had the most extensive clearing over the years.
He said eastern Australia was between 0.4 and two degrees warmer, and southwest WA was between 0.4 and 0.8 degrees warmer.
"Native vegetation moderates climate fluctuations and this has important, largely unrecognised consequences for agriculture and stressed land and water resources," Dr McAlpine said.
"Australian native vegetation holds more moisture that subsequently evaporates and recycles back as rainfall.
"It also reflects into space less short-wave solar radiation… and this process keeps the surface temperature cooler and aids cloud formation."
The study titled "Modelling Impacts of Vegetation Cover Change on Regional Climate" will be published later this year in Geophysical Research Letters, the journal of the American Geophysical Union.