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Reduced sediment transport in the Yellow River due to anthropogenic changes

Nature Geoscience volume 9, pages 3841 (2016) | Download Citation


The erosion, transport and redeposition of sediments shape the Earth’s surface, and affect the structure and function of ecosystems and society1,2. The Yellow River was once the world’s largest carrier of fluvial sediment, but its sediment load has decreased by approximately 90% over the past 60 years3. The decline in sediment load is due to changes in water discharge and sediment concentration, which are both influenced by regional climate change and human activities. Here we use an attribution approach to analyse 60 years of runoff and sediment load observations from the traverse of the Yellow River over China’s Loess Plateau — the source of nearly 90% of its sediment load. We find that landscape engineering, terracing and the construction of check dams and reservoirs were the primary factors driving reduction in sediment load from the 1970s to 1990s, but large-scale vegetation restoration projects have also reduced soil erosion from the 1990s onwards. We suggest that, as the ability of existing dams and reservoirs to trap sediments declines in the future, erosion rates on the Loess Plateau will increasingly control the Yellow River’s sediment load.

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This work was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 41390464, 41401027) and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (No. GJHZ 1502). We thank J. Gash for his assistance with the English language editing.

Author information


  1. State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology, Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100085, China

    • Shuai Wang
    • , Bojie Fu
    • , Yihe Lü
    • , Xiaoming Feng
    •  & Yafeng Wang
  2. Joint Center for Global Change Studies, Beijing 100875, China

    • Shuai Wang
    • , Bojie Fu
    • , Yihe Lü
    • , Xiaoming Feng
    •  & Yafeng Wang
  3. College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China

    • Shilong Piao
  4. Laboratory of Alpine Ecology and Biodiversity, Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China

    • Shilong Piao
  5. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, CEA CNRS UVSQ, 91191 Gif-sur-Yvette, France

    • Philippe Ciais


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B.F., S.W. and S.P. designed the research. S.W., S.P. and P.C. performed the Sediment Identity analysis. Y.L. and S.W. performed trend analysis. S.W. and X.F. performed vegetation effects analysis. S.W. and Y.W. analysed the effects of engineering measures. All authors contributed to the interpretation and writing.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Bojie Fu.

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