Soil in Northern China is drying out and farming, not climate change, is culprit
An important agricultural region in China is drying out, and increased farming may be more to blame than rising temperatures and less rain, according to a study spanning 30 years of data. A research team led by Purdue University and China Agricultural University analyzed soil moisture during the growing season in Northern China and found that it has decreased by 6% since 1983.
The optimal soil-moisture level for farmland is typically 40% to 85% of the water holding capacity, and the region’s soil is now less than 40% and getting drier. If this trend continues, the soil may not be able to support crops by as early as 2090, said study leader Qianlai Zhuang, Purdue’s William F. and Patty J. Miller Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Agronomy.
“The soil moisture declined by 1.5 to 2.5% every decade of the study and, while climate change is still a factor, this water depletion appears to be largely driven by human activities,” Zhuang said. “A 10% decline in soil moisture over the course of a century would have major implications for agriculture and the fresh water supply in this heavily populated area.”
Forty percent of the nation’s population resides in Northern China, according to the country’s population census office. The region also accounts for 65% of the nation’s cropland, Zhuang said. “The drying of soil in Northern China has been well documented, but its causes and the impacts of agricultural intensification in general have been understudied,” he continued. “This information is critical to improvement of agricultural practices and water resource management. The demand for food and water is increasing, but current practices to meet this demand threaten the future security of water resources. Unfortunately, with the growing world population, more and more regions could face the same circumstances of agricultural intensification for food security.”