PROJECT 3 – SPECTRA: Soil Processes and Ecological Services in the Karst Critical Zone of SW China


SPECTRA: Soil Processes and Ecological Services in the Karst Critical Zone of SW China


Covering extensive parts of Southwest China, Karst is a key landscape that is exceptional because rapid and intensive land use change has caused severe ecosystem degradation within only the last 50 years. The rapid increase in environmental degradation due to rocky desertification in the Karst is comparable to that caused by the better known extreme rates of erosion of the sandy loess soils in North China. Therefore, establishment of a critical zone observatory (CZO) in the karst landscape of SW China along a dynamic perturbation gradient in varying states of transition between states of rocky desertification to natural forest would fill a significant gap in the current database and research effort. Furthermore, there is a socioeconomic imperative to establish a CZO in the karst landscapes of SW China. The population of 36 million are amongst the poorest in China, with regional GDP less than 50% of the national average, and sustainable solutions to land management, potentially including abandonment and economic compensation, will be integral to lifting the population out of poverty.

The CZO was established in June 2016. We investigate the integrated geophysical-geochemical-ecological and social responses of the CZO to past perturbations, along a gradient from undisturbed natural vegetation through human perturbed landscapes.

We integrate measurements of

1. plant, soil, mycorrhizal fungi and free-living soil 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) within the karst ecosystem.

Through explicit consideration of plant-microbe-soil and plant-microbe-rock interactions, we will identify the biological controls on nutrient availability, soil formation and loss in the CZO.

Examples (a & b) of the intensive agricultural use within the Chenqi catchment; and (c) the karst crevice underground network.

Project institutes

  • University of Exeter
  • University of Bristol
  • Cranfield University
  • Rothamsted Research
  • Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) IGSNRR
  • Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) IGCAS
  • Peking University
  • Beijing Normal University
  • Tianjin University


  • NERC
  • NFSC


Prof. Timothy Quine

University of Exeter

Prof. Xuefa Wen

Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS