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Changes in vegetation and surface water balance at basin-scale in Central China with rising atmospheric CO2

Abstract

Elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration alters vegetation growth and composition, increases plant water use efficiency (WUE), and changes surface water balance. These changes and their differences between wet and dry climate are studied at a mid-latitude experiment site in the Loess Plateau of China. The study site, the Jinghe River basin (JRB), covers an area of 43,216 km2 and has a semiarid climate in the north and a semi-humid climate in the south. Two simulations from 1965 to 2012 are made using a site-calibrated Lund–Potsdam–Jena dynamic global vegetation model: one with the observed rise of the atmospheric CO2 from 319.7–391.2 ppmv, and the other with a fixed CO2 at the level of 1964 (318.9 ppmv). Analyses of the model results show that the elevated atmospheric CO2 promotes growth of woody vegetation (trees) and causes a 6.0% increase in basin-wide net primary production (NPP). The NPP increase uses little extra water however because of higher WUE. Further examination of the surface water budget reveals opposite CO2 effects between semiarid and semi-humid climates in the JRB. In the semiarid climate, plants sustain growth in higher CO2 because of the higher level of intracellular CO2 and therefore WUE, thus consuming more water and causing a greater decrease of surface runoff than in the fixed-lower CO2 case. In the semi-humid climate, NPP also increases but by a smaller amount than in the semiarid climate. Plant transpiration (ET) and total evapotranspiration (E) decrease in the elevated CO2 environment, yielding the increase of runoff. This asymmetry of the effects of elevated atmospheric CO2 exacerbates drying in the semiarid climate and enhances wetness in the semi-humid climate. Furthermore, plant WUE (=NPP/ET) is found to be nearly invariant to climate but primarily a function of the atmospheric CO2 concentration, a result suggesting a strong constraint of atmospheric CO2 on biophysical properties of the Earth system.

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Acknowledgements

We thank two anonymous reviewers of an early version of this work for their suggestions and comments that have helped improve the clarity of this presentation. This research was supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2017YFC0406101) and the UK-China Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) Program (41571130071). Qi Hu was supported by USDA Cooperative Research Project NEB-38-088.

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Correspondence to Xi Chen.

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Huang, R., Chen, X. & Hu, Q. Changes in vegetation and surface water balance at basin-scale in Central China with rising atmospheric CO2. Climatic Change 155, 437–454 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-019-02475-w

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