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Revegetation in China’s Loess Plateau is approaching sustainable water resource limits


Revegetation of degraded ecosystems provides opportunities for carbon sequestration and bioenergy production1,2. However, vegetation expansion in water-limited areas creates potentially conflicting demands for water between the ecosystem and humans3. Current understanding of these competing demands is still limited4. Here, we study the semi-arid Loess Plateau in China, where the ‘Grain to Green’ large-scale revegetation programme has been in operation since 1999. As expected, we found that the new planting has caused both net primary productivity (NPP) and evapotranspiration (ET) to increase. Also the increase of ET has induced a significant (p < 0.001) decrease in the ratio of river runoff to annual precipitation across hydrological catchments. From currently revegetated areas and human water demand, we estimate a threshold of NPP of 400 ± 5 g C m−2 yr−1 above which the population will suffer water shortages. NPP in this region is found to be already close to this limit. The threshold of NPP could change by −36% in the worst case of climate drying and high human withdrawals, to +43% in the best case. Our results develop a new conceptual framework to determine the critical carbon sequestration that is sustainable in terms of both ecological and socio-economic resource demands in a coupled anthropogenic–biological system.

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Figure 1: Location of the Loess Plateau and change in vegetation.
Figure 2: Changes in NPP and water resources.
Figure 3: NPP thresholds derived from the satellite-observed NPP–ET relationship and the predictions of NPPcrit,bio+ant for the climate of the 2050s.


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We thank F. Zhou for providing river runoff data from the hydrological catchments. This study was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (nos 41390464 and 41230745), Chinese Academy of Sciences (GJHZ 1502) and the Major Programme of High Resolution Earth Observation System (30-Y30B13-9003-14/16-02). The GLDAS LSM data used were acquired as part of the mission of NASA’s Earth Science Division and archived and distributed by the Goddard Earth Sciences (GES) Data and Information Services Center (DISC).

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B.F., X.F. and S.P. designed the research. X.F., S.P., B.F., S.W. and P.C. wrote the manuscript. S.P., Z.Z., X.F. and Y. Li conducted modelling, projection and statistical analysis. Y.Z., X.F. and B.W. conducted the remotely sensed NPP, ET and land-cover analysis. Y. Lü, S.W. and X.J. conducted the analysis of river runoff from the hydrological catchments.

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Correspondence to Bojie Fu.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Feng, X., Fu, B., Piao, S. et al. Revegetation in China’s Loess Plateau is approaching sustainable water resource limits. Nature Clim Change 6, 1019–1022 (2016).

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