OSU researchers develop GIS tool to help China reduce soil erosion

December 17, 2004

CORVALLIS - Oregon State University researchers working with the People's Republic of China have developed a web-based Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping tool they hope will help solve the massive loss of topsoil on high elevation plateaus in western and northern China.

The online mapping system, part of OSU's Spatial Climate Analysis Service, (http://www.ocs.orst.edu/prism/) and linked to the OSU Forage Information System, (http://forages.oregonstate.edu/), is designed to let users quickly identify grasses and legumes that are best adapted to the climate and soils of a particular geographic location.

The project's sponsors include the Oregon Seed Council and the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Market Access Program and Emerging Markets Program.

China is keenly interested in the project because they need grasses that are well-suited to slow the soil erosion that is gradually turning large areas of the country into desert, the researchers say. Enormous dust storms in northern China have blown as far east as the west coast of the United States.

"The Chinese have recognized the degraded condition of many of their semi-arid rangelands since the 1970s," said David Hannaway, OSU Extension forage specialist. "Some of these areas are high plateaus that receive little rain or snowfall and are very cold in the winter. There are too many people and too many animals on these grasslands due to dramatic population growth in China and subsequent demand for increased food production.

"The result has been severe overgrazing that has almost exhausted forage grass resources and led to desertification in marginal areas," Hannaway added.

The challenge for China's land managers is to find forage grass species and varieties that are well-adapted to the extreme climates of these areas and get them established and growing in the shortest possible time, Hannaway explained.

Hannaway and Chris Daly, an OSU climatologist with experience in developing climate maps, began work on creating a 'forage crop selection tool' in the late 1990s with the goal of building an online information system capable of matching forage species growth requirements with the soils and climate characteristics of particular areas. That project has now evolved into the Species Suitability modeling system available online at http://mistral.coas.oregonstate.edu/forages/

"China's interest in this project was a tremendous opportunity for us because of all the resources they are investing in the agricultural development of these lands," said Daly. "They saw our project as an important step forward in getting erosion problems under control."

A wealth of information on climate, soils and plant species is available from many sources, but it is not always easily accessible, Daly said. The goal of the project has been to put all that information together in one tool that users can easily access via the Internet, he added.

"The dynamic feature of this tool is that it can create new forage species suitability maps when quantitative tolerances for that species are entered," said Daly. "The user designates the area of interest and the tool uses climate and soil maps of the area to show where the forage crop species selected would be most likely to grow successfully."

According to Hannaway, the Chinese want to establish forage grasses over huge areas with a broad range of climate characteristics.

"Because these high plateau areas cover thousands of square miles, it just isn't practical there to conduct on-the-ground planting trials to find out what species of forage grasses are best adapted to the different regions with their varying climates," Hannaway said. "The species suitability mapping tool allows us to take a bit of a short cut in this process.

"It's still necessary to do some planting trials to validate our maps, but we can jump a few steps ahead by letting the mapping tool identify the forage crop species most likely to succeed," he added.

Daly and Hannaway believe the web-based mapping tool may have far-reaching impact.

"Although our project focuses on China, the technology we're using can be configured to work anywhere in the world," said Daly. "This tool has tremendous potential for agricultural and environmental uses in any country where growers or land managers need to find desirable plant species quickly that are well-adapted to local growing conditions."

Author: Bob Rost
Source: David Hannaway, Christopher Daly