Articles | Volume 21, issue 8
Research article
28 Aug 2017
Research article |  | 28 Aug 2017

Evolution of the vegetation system in the Heihe River basin in the last 2000 years

Shoubo Li, Yan Zhao, Yongping Wei, and Hang Zheng

Abstract. The response of vegetation systems to the long-term changes in climate, hydrology, and social–economic conditions in river basins is critical for sustainable river basin management. This study aims to investigate the evolution of natural and crop vegetation systems in the Heihe River basin (HRB) over the past 2000 years. Archived Landsat images, historical land use maps and hydrological records were introduced to derive the long-term spatial distribution of natural and crop vegetation and the corresponding biomass levels. The major findings are that (1) both natural and crop vegetation experienced three development stages: a pre-development stage (before the Republic of China), a rapid development stage (Republic of China – 2000), and a post-development stage (after 2000). Climate and hydrological conditions did not show significant impacts over crop vegetation, while streamflow presented synchronous changes with natural vegetation in the first stage. For the second stage, warmer temperature and increasing streamflow were found to be important factors for the increase in both natural and crop vegetation in the middle reaches of the HRB. For the third stage, positive climate and hydrological conditions, together with policy interventions, supported the overall vegetation increase in both the middle and lower HRB; (2) there was a significantly faster increase in crop biomass than that of native vegetation since 1949, which could be explained by the technological development; and (3) the ratio of natural vegetation to crop vegetation decreased from 16 during the Yuan Dynasty to about 2.2 since 2005. This ratio reflects the reaction of land and water development to a changing climate and altering social–economic conditions at the river basin level; therefore, it could be used as an indicator of water and land management at river basins.

Short summary
This study aims to investigate the evolution of natural and crop vegetation systems over the past 2000 years accommodated with the changes in water regimes at the basin scale. It is based on remote-sensing data and previous historical research. The methods developed and the findings obtained from this study could assist in understanding how current ecosystem problems were created in the past and what their implications for future river basin management are.