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Soil Processes and Ecological Services in the Karst Critical Zone of Southwest China

This NERC-NSFC-Newton funded programme brings together an exceptional international team of scientists ideally placed to achieve the goal of advancing quantitative understanding of the response, resilience and recoveryof the Karst Critical Zone (CZ) of China to environmental perturbation.

The project will be lead in China by Prof. Dali Guo of the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research (Chinese Academy of Sciences) and in the UK by Prof. Timothy Quine (University of Exeter).

About the SPECTRA programme

The SPECTRA programme seeks to enhance the sustainable development of one of the poorest regions of China, Guizhou, through cutting edge critical zone science undertaken by integrated, complementary and multidisciplinary teams of Chinese and UK scientists. The key question for management of the karst landscapes of SW China is "how can the highly heterogeneous critical zone resources be restored, to enable sustainable delivery of ecosystem services?" We know little about the geological, hydrological and ecological processes which control soil fertility and soil function in these landscapes and how best to manage them to maximise ecosystem service delivery. SPECTRA has been designed to address these questions through a suite of 4 interlinked workpackages.

The CZ will span a gradient from undisturbed natural vegetation through to human perturbed and highly degraded landscapes. Using cutting-edge approaches we will integrate measurements of:

  1. the three-dimensional distribution of plants (including roots), soil, fungi, and microbes;
  2. rates of rock weathering, elemental release and soil formation processes;
  3. rates of erosion and soil redistribution; and,
  4. pools and fluxes of soil organic C (SOC), nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P).

This will allow us to identify the biological controls on nutrient availability, soil formation and loss in the CZ and their response to perturbation, providing the rich evidence base needed to inform land management decision-making in the Guizhou province. In doing so, SPECTRA will directly address the Newton Fund objective of enhancing economic development and social welfare by providing rigorous applied scientific knowledge that will underpin the development of strategies to improve net ecological service delivery from the karst landscape, informing realistic economic and ecological compensation plans to alleviate poverty, particularly for the households that rely on fragile soils for a living. The project is also designed to maximise the benefits to the science communities of both countries, thereby bringing significant institutional benefits to all partners. Training of Chinese Early Career Researchers in state-of-the-art approaches and techniques in leading UK laboratories is an absolute priority of the scientific partnership, and combined with the networking opportunities between project partners in the global CZ community, will contribute significantly to meeting the Newton Fund objective of building the capacity for CZ Science in China.

The ultimate beneficiaries of this project will be the people of Guizhou karst region (population 35 million), which is one of the poorest regions in China with a GDP less than 50% of the national average. In response to the environmental deterioration and changing social conditions in the Guizhou karst region, the Chinese government has intervened to promote the abandonment of the most degraded cultivated land and its succession to grassland, shrub and forest. This strategy has met with mixed success and is not yet underpinned by well-developed plans to repay landowners for rational and sustainable use of land resources. This must be informed by science that quantifies current and potential ecosystem service delivery. There is significant potential for our research on the response, resilience and recovery of the karst critical zone to perturbation to inform improved land management strategies that will meet these demands, leading in turn to improved delivery of ecosystem services to the communities in this region and higher environmental quality, addressing poverty and the welfare of the population through development of long-term sustainable economic development.

SPECTRA brings together an exceptional international team of scientists ideally placed to achieve our goal of advancing quantitative understanding of the response, resilience and recoveryof the Karst Critical Zone (CZ) of China to environmental perturbation.

The UK team has a track record of successful collaboration through the multi-institutional Food Security and Land Research Alliance and the GW4 partnership. The Chinese Team brings together 2 Institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, with the Peking, Beijing Normal and Tianjin Universities in China.

The Chinese team will be led by Dali Guo (IGSNRR, Chinese Academy of Sciences), a world-leading ecologist with laboratory and field expertise extending from root and mycorrhizal ecology, through plant physiology to ecosystem ecology. He has expertise in spatial analysis including geostatistical modelling, spatial prediction and uncertainty assessment. Distinguished awards include “National Outstanding Young Scientist” of the Natural Science Foundation of China (2013). He has over 20 national and international collaborators including groups in China, USA, UK and Germany. He is member of the editorial boards of New Phytologist, Journal of Ecology, and Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene.

The UK team will be led by Tim Quine (University of Exeter). With over 25 years of experience in soil erosion research and a decade in soil carbon research, Quine is a world expert in the use of fallout radionuclides in erosion assessment and has pioneered research on the influence of erosion on the carbon cycle. He has experience of leading successful research in four provinces in China, is Visiting Professor at the Chinese Institute of Geochemistry Guizhou, and has worked on four other continents. As well as providing overall leadership of the UK project, His work will be central to WP2 and WP4.

WP1 will be led in China by Project PI Dali Guo and in the UK by Iain Hartley (Co-I, Exeter).

Guo’s WP1 collaborators in China include Zeqing MaJing Tian, Jingyuan Wang (Co-Is, IGSNRR); and Chenglong Tu (Co-I, IGCAS, Chinese Academy of Sciences). Chenglong Tu is a geochemist who studies soil organic matter (SOM) dynamics using stable isotope tracing, whose recent projects include a comprehensive survey and GIS analysis of macronutrient and trace element abundance in soils across the Guizhou province, the results of which will inform the development of WP1. He is also engaged in the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) site in central Guizhou province, which is integral to the proposed project. He was a visiting research fellow at Exeter, 2014, where he worked with Quine.

Iain Hartley undertakes cutting edge research investigating how terrestrial ecosystems will respond to global change, with particular expertise in understanding impacts on soil C and nutrient cycling. He has secured over £2.2m in research funding, including current NERC and DECC-funded projects on ecosystems from the Arctic to the tropics, and is currently principal investigator on the NERC-funded Amazon Fertilisation Experiment, the first large-scale soil nutrient manipulation study in Amazon rainforest. Of direct relevance to this project, his research makes extensive use of stable isotopes to complement measurements of fluxes (CO2, CH4) and stores of carbon and nutrients in contrasting ecosystems. Hartley will be the UK lead on WP1 and will also contribute to interpretation of data from WP2, 3 and 4.

WP2 will be led in China by Zhaoliang Song (Co-I, Tianjin University) and in the UK by Heather Buss (Co-I, University of Bristol) in collaboration with Quine and Barrows.

Song researches biogeochemical cycles of mineral nutrients and rare earth elements in karst regions and has developed novel tracing methods employing strontium isotopes, rare earth elements and phytoliths to quantify weathering, soil formation and erosion processes. NSFC grants include Geochemical stability and carbon sequestration potential of phytoliths in soils of moso bamboo forests and Impact of land use modes on phytolith carbon sink in soils under subtropical forests. He has held visiting scholar positions at the University of Washington (USA), Southern Cross University (Australia) and Peking University. His 29 SCI papers include 2 in each of Global Change Biology, PlosOne and Earth Science Reviews. WP2 collaborators in China will include Weijun Luo, Xiao Wei and Taoze Liu (Co-Is, IGCAS).

Heather Buss is a Lecturer in Biogeochemical Weathering, with 15 years’ experience investigating chemical weathering in soils and bedrock. Her research focuses on physical, biological, and geochemical controls on mineral weathering and nutrient cycles, and she developed the first quantitative model coupling microbial growth rates in soils to bedrock weathering, determining that deep weathering along fractures controls solute production in tropical catchments. Buss has been deeply involved in CZO initiatives in the US and EU for over 10 years as a founding PI and investigator (Luquillo CZO, USA), collaborator (Slavkov CZO, Czech Republic; Susquehanna Shale Hills CZO, USA) and consultant (EC FP-6 SoilCritZone; Working Group on NSF-USGS Collaboration at CZOs). She will lead the weathering work (WP2) in close collaboration with Co-Is to link weathering processes to erosion (WP2), biogeochemical cycling (WP3) and ecosystem services (WP4).

Tim Barrows (Co-I, University of Exeter) is a geochronologist and geochemist specialising in exposure dating and erosion rate studies to explore short and long term landscape evolution. Barrows is one of the most experienced practitioners in the UK, with 18 years in the development and application of cosmogenic nuclides. Barrows will lead the cosmogenic radionuclide components of WP2.

WP3 will be led in China by Xuefa Wen (Chinese Academy of Sciences) and in the UK by Jennifer Dungait (Co-I Rothamsted Research) in collaboration with Evershed and Johnes

Xuefa Wen (IGSNRR, Chinese Academy of Sciences)has expertise in stable isotope biogeochemistry and ecology, and has pioneered research on improving the understanding of the coupling cycle of carbon, nitrogen and water in the terrestrial biosphere. His current grants (value >RMB 1.4M) include Continuous measurement of carbon isotopic and flux ratio in a subtropical evergreen coniferous plantation and its underlying mechanism and Response of carbon sequestration to seasonal drought in a subtropical evergreen coniferous plantation. He has 93 peer reviewed publications including papers in PlosONE, JGR-Atmospheres, Oecologia. WP3 collaborators in China will include Yang Gao, who brings expertise in ecosystem science, including carbon and phosphorus cycling, ecohydrology and ecosystem network observation and modelling,  Xinyu Zhang, Nianpeng He and Li Zhang (Co-Is, IGSNRR).

Jennifer Dungait (Co-I, Rothamsted) leads the Soil Carbon Dynamics group at Rothamsted and a major project testing root design for optimisation of growth and soil sustainability. Her expertise in biogeochemistry and soil science has a focus very relevant to this project on optimisation of soil carbon dynamics in agricultural soils. She will lead WP3 in collaboration with Evershed and Johnes and contribute to interpretation of WP1, WP2 and WP4 data.

Richard Evershed FRS (Co-I, University of Bristol) is Professor of Biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol, Distinguished Fellow of the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems, Director of the NERC Life Science Mass Spectrometry Facility and of the Bristol Biogeochemistry Research Centre. He specialises in developing and applying state-of-the-art chromatographic and mass spectrometric techniques to obtain molecular and stable isotopic information from organic compounds in modern and ancient environments and is one of the pioneers of compound-specific stable isotope probing (SIP), which he applies to soil and water domains.

Penny Johnes (Co-I, University of Bristol) is Professor of Biogeochemistry and Director of Laboratories, with >25 years’ experience in catchment biogeochemistry research. She specialises in developing catchment-scale understanding of N, P and C cycling and flux from land to water, working in partnership with a wide range of stakeholders, and brings specific expertise in the quantification and characterisation of organic matter in soils and waters to the project. Ongoing research includes the NERC DOMAINE large grant programme (PI), a NERC Urgency Grant (Co-I) on the Legacy Demonstration Test Catchments (Joint-PI) and Sustainable Intensification (Co-I) Programmes.

WP4 will be led in China by Hongyan Liu (Peking University) and in the UK by Timothy Quine/Jeroen Meersmans (Co-Is, Exeter).

Hongyan Liu (Peking University) is an expert in palynology and biogeography, who focuses on how ecosystems respond to climate change and the relationship between ecological restoration and improved ecosystem services. He has held a Humboldt Fellowship at PIK Potsdam and a CCSEP Visiting Scholar position at the University of Calgary. He holds several major NSFC and CAS awards (CV). He has over 20 national and international collaborators including groups in the USA, Russia, Germany, and France. In 2014 he received Distinguished Young Scientist Award of China. He has 66 peer-reviewed papers published in leading journals including Global Change BiologyGlobal and Planetary Change, Geophysical Research Letters. WP3 collaborators in China will include with Jian Peng and Hongya Wang (Co-Is, Peking University);and Xiuchen Wu(Co-I, Beijing Normal University).

Jeroen Meersmans (Co-I, University of Exeter) brings expertise in statistical analysis and modelling the spatial and temporal evolution of soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks at regional scales using soil type, land use, climate and agro-management data. The focus of his work is to improve knowledge of 3D spatial and temporal evolution of SOC at the landscape scale by integrating soil erosion, land use change, C input and mineralization rate information in existing process-based models. His experience of national scale mapping and modelling of SOC stocks (Belgium and France with INRA) will be critical to his lead in the spatial extrapolation of SOC stock and other ecosystem services across the CZO and entire Karst region within WP4.

We will collaborate with a number of key project partners associated with CZOs around the world:

Tim White (Pennsylvania State University, US) is the US National CZO Coordinator and has been heavily involved in coordinating cross-CZO activities in the US and served, with Buss, as an advisor to the EC FP-6 SoilCritZone project (precursor to SoilTrEC, which established the first European CZOs) and was  a project partner on SoilTrEC. He will advise us on opportunities for cross-CZO activities and ensure that our CZO is incorporated into international CZO datasets, summaries, and meetings.  In addition we have partnered with 4 of the PIs of US CZOs to advise us on establishing and running a CZO and to further integrate us into the network. Specifically, Susan Brantley (Pennsylvania State University; PI of the Susquehanna Shale Hills CZO and Co-I of the Luquillo CZO, of which Buss is also an Investigator), Suzanne Anderson (University of Colorado, Boulder; PI of the Boulder Creek CZO), Jon Chorover (University of Arizona; PI of the Catalina-Jemez CZO) and Chris Duffy (Penn State University; PI of the Susquehanna Shale Hills CZO). In addition, Chorover will advise us on issues related to adapting CZO methodologies for desertified environments and Duffy, a hydrologist, will also help us to apply CZ hydrologic models to our site.

We will also partner with Nikolaos Nikolaidis (Technical University of Crete, PI of the Koiliaris CZO) who led the development of the CAST model (Carbon, Aggregation, Structure and Turnover) for SoilTrEC and has agreed to collaborate with us on applying it to our site, as well as to discuss cross-site comparisons with the Koiliaris CZO, which is also based on karst terrain. Also with Asmeret Berhe (University of California, Merced; Investigator at the Southern Sierra CZO) who has been heavily involved in the US network’s efforts to coordinate instrumentation; he will advise us on instrumentation to facilitate efficient data collection and integration with US CZO datasets. Finally, with Jérôme Gaillardet (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris; PI of the Réseau des Bassins Versants (RBV), a drainage basin observatory network in France) who will help us to integrate our site into the European observatory networks and will collaborate intellectually on carbonate weathering in the CZ context.