Deciphering human contributions to Yellow River flow reductions and downstream drying using centuries-long tree ring records

TitleDeciphering human contributions to Yellow River flow reductions and downstream drying using centuries-long tree ring records
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsLi J.B, Xie SP, Cook E.R, Chen F.H, Shi J.F, Zhang D.D, Fang K.Y, Gou X.H, Li T., Peng J.F, Shi S.Y, Zhao Y.S
JournalGeophysical Research Letters
Date Published2019/01
Type of ArticleArticle
ISBN Number0094-8276
Accession NumberWOS:000458607400041
Keywordsbasin; climate-change; discharge; Geology; impacts; middle reaches; runoff efficiency; streamflow; upstream; water-resources

The Yellow River flow has decreased substantially in recent decades, and the river often dried up in the lower reach and failed to reach the sea. Climate change and human disruption have been suggested as major causes of the flow reduction, but quantification of their relative contribution is challenging due to limited instrumental records and disturbance by dams. Here we use a basin-wide tree ring network to reconstruct the Yellow River flow for the past 1,200 years and show that the flow exhibits marked amplitude variations that are closely coupled to the hydrological mean state swings at multidecadal to centennial timescales. Recent flow should have increased to the highest level of the past 1,200 years if there were no human disruption. However, human activities have caused a loss of nearly half of natural flow since the late 1960s and are the main culprit for recent downstream flow reduction. Plain Language Summary Recent Yellow River flow reductions have had major impacts on China's economy and water policy. The short and heavily human-modified gauge records are unable to reveal natural flow variability now and in the past. Here we use tree rings to reconstruct long-term Yellow River flow, which enables an assessment of natural flow variability and the detection of human contributions to recent flow reductions. Our 1,200-year reconstruction reveals that under natural conditions the Yellow River flow should have increased markedly since the early twentieth century. However, the observed flow decreased since the late 1960s and such a decrease must be predominately caused by human interventions instead of climate change.

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