Poplar plantation has the potential to alter the water balance in semiarid inner Mongolia
Poplar plantation is the most dominant broadleaf forest type in northern China. Since the mid-1990s plantation was intensified to combat desertification along China’s northwestern border, i.e., within Inner Mongolia (IM). This evoked much concern regarding the ecological and environmental effects on areas that naturally grow grass or shrub vegetation. To highlight potential consequences of large-scale poplar plantations on the water budget within semiarid IM, we compared the growing season water balance (evapotranspiration (ET) and precipitation (PPT)) of a 3-yr old poplar plantation (Kp3) and a natural shrubland (Ks) in the Kubuqi Desert in western IM, and a 6-yr old poplar plantation (Bp6) growing under sub-humid climate near Beijing. The results showed that, despite 33% lower PPT at Kp3, ET was 2% higher at Kp3 (228 mm) as compared with Ks (223 mm) in May–September 2006. The difference derived mainly from higher ET at the plantation during drier periods of the growing season, which also indicated that the poplars must have partly transpired groundwater. Estimated growing season ET at Bp6 was about 550 mm and more than 100% higher than at Kp3. It is estimated that increases in leaf area index and net radiation at Kp3 provide future potential for the poplars in Kubuqi to exceed the present ET and ET of the natural shrubland by 100–200%. These increases in ET are only possible through the permanent use of groundwater either directly by the trees or through increased irrigation. This may significantly change the water balance in the area (e.g., high ET at the cost of a reduction in the water table), which renders large-scale plantations a questionable tool in sustainable arid-land management.