Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Using critical zone science to understand sustaining the ecosystem service of soil and water

This programme aims to understand and address the challenges that China’s ecosystems are facing from population and industrial growth, such as degradation of soil and water scarcity, within the framework of the critical zone, the portion of the earth that supports life.

£3 million (NERC) and RMB 60 million (NSFC)
2015 to 2018
Partners involved:
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC)

The scope and what we're doing

The aim of this programme is to:

  • understand the agricultural production and urbanisation challenges that China is facing in trying to deliver a sustainable ecosystem
  • find solutions for these challenges.

Resilience of these ecosystem services will be key to the health and wellbeing of China’s ongoing land and water use transitions. It can be best understood by looking at these services in the context of the critical zone (CZ) and the interdisciplinary science required to address it.

The CZ is the portion of the earth that supports life, and extends from the top of the tree canopy to the bottom of aquifers – the zone that supports life on the planet. CZ science offers an integrating research framework that tackles soil and water with a focus on the interfaces between atmospheric, biological, hydrological and geological sciences. While soil and water are important compartments of the CZ, and are major interfaces with above and below ground systems, they must be viewed in the holistic perspective where their processes and interfaces are part of the whole system.

Changes in the way China manages its land and water use, due to population and economic development pressures, has resulted in widespread soil degradation and water scarcity in terms of quantity and quality, and their ability to deliver ecosystem services. Prime quality land, generally in the humid south, is being replaced by lower (agricultural) quality land in the colder and water-limited north. Much of this land is flood zone and will lack resilience under agricultural practices.

The emerging agricultural situation is one of erosion, loss or over-use of prime land in the south, and increasing water shortages reducing yields in the north. With the political ambition to deliver ecological sustainability, there is a need for new scientific understanding, and a more holistic approach to restore and remediate damaged and depleted soils and water resources. This is needed to ensure ecosystem services in many areas of China are maintained and are resilient to perturbations.

To tackle China’s challenges and sustain the ecological service of both water and soil, there is a need for knowledge in relation to soil source and formation, and stocks and flows of water. Researchers need to consider their evolution, functioning and resilience to climate, land use change and human perturbation in ecological systems. These understandings can only be achieved through research in the context of coupled physical, chemical and biological processes, and interface changes in the CZ.

Through this approach, the programme will provide evidence to inform and influence policy and management decisions, including restoration and remediation, which are key in defining land and water use. Scientific advances from this programme are needed to inform future decision making.

The programme aims to understand the role of soil and water within the framework of the CZ, and use CZ science in providing China’s important ecosystem services, including agriculture and climate mitigation.

Within this framework the scientific objectives are to:

  • understand the importance of spatial variation and scale (from field to landscape) on the ability of soils and water to perform their multiple functions within the CZ
  • develop modelling approaches and improve model skill, with the integration of wider disciplines, to predict resilience
  • understand and improve soil and water resilience to perturbations within the context of environmental stressors within China (such as erosion, pollutants, extreme weather, changing agricultural practices, and water availability).

This programme is supported by the UK through the Newton Fund which forms part of the UK government’s Official Development Assistance (ODA).

Past projects, outcomes and impact

Who to contact

Jennifer Wickens


Last updated: 18 October 2022

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