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There has been growing evidence that vegetation greenness has been increasing in many parts of the northern middle and high latitudes including China during the last three to four decades. However, the effects of increasing vegetation greenness particularly afforestation on the hydrological cycle have been controversial. We used a process-based ecosystem model and a satellite-derived leaf area index (LAI) dataset to examine how the changes in vegetation greenness affected annual evapotranspiration (ET) and water yield for China over the period from 2000 to 2014. Significant trends in vegetation greenness were observed in 26.1% of China's land area. We used two model simulations driven with original and detrended LAI, respectively, to assess the effects of vegetation 'greening' and 'browning' on terrestrial ET and water yield. On a per-pixel basis, vegetation greening increased annual ET and decreased water yield, while vegetation browning reduced ET and increased water yield. At the large river basin and national scales, the greening trends also had positive effects on annual ET and had negative effects on water yield. Our results showed that the effects of the changes in vegetation greenness on the hydrological cycle varied with spatial scale. Afforestation efforts perhaps should focus on southern China with larger water supply given the water crisis in northern China and the negative effects of vegetation greening on water yield. Future studies on the effects of the greenness changes on the hydrological cycle are needed to account for the feedbacks to the climate.


Earth Systems Research Center

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Environmental Research Letters


Institute of Physics (IOP)

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© 2016 IOP Publishing Ltd


This is an article published by Institute of Physics (IOP) in Environmental Research Letters in 2016, available online: