Irrigation in the Earth system

Sonali McDermid, Mallika Nocco, Patricia Lawston-Parker, Jessica Keune, Yadu Pokhrel, Meha Jain, Jonas Jägermeyr, Luca Brocca, Christian Massari, Andrew D. Jones, Pouya Vahmani, Wim Thiery, Yi Yao, Andrew Bell, Liang Chen, Wouter Dorigo, Naota Hanasaki, Scott Jasechko, Min Hui Lo, Rezaul MahmoodVimal Mishra, Nathaniel D. Mueller, Dev Niyogi, Sam S. Rabin, Lindsey Sloat, Yoshihide Wada, Luca Zappa, Fei Chen, Benjamin I. Cook, Hyungjun Kim, Danica Lombardozzi, Jan Polcher, Dongryeol Ryu, Joe Santanello, Yusuke Satoh, Sonia Seneviratne, Deepti Singh, Tokuta Yokohata

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13 Scopus citations


Irrigation accounts for ~70% of global freshwater withdrawals and ~90% of consumptive water use, driving myriad Earth system impacts. In this Review, we summarize how irrigation currently impacts key components of the Earth system. Estimates suggest that more than 3.6 million km2 of currently irrigated land, with hot spots in the intensively cultivated US High Plains, California Central Valley, Indo-Gangetic Basin and northern China. Process-based models estimate that ~2,700 ± 540 km3 irrigation water is withdrawn globally each year, broadly consistent with country-reported values despite these estimates embedding substantial uncertainties. Expansive irrigation has modified surface energy balance and biogeochemical cycling. A shift from sensible to latent heat fluxes, and resulting land–atmosphere feedbacks, generally reduce regional growing season surface temperatures by ~1–3 °C. Irrigation can ameliorate temperature extremes in some regions, but conversely exacerbates moist heat stress. Modelled precipitation responses are more varied, with some intensive cropping regions exhibiting suppressed local precipitation but enhanced precipitation downstream owing to atmospheric circulation interactions. Additionally, irrigation could enhance cropland carbon uptake; however, it can also contribute to elevated methane fluxes in rice systems and mobilize nitrogen loading to groundwater. Cross-disciplinary, integrative research efforts can help advance understanding of these irrigation–Earth system interactions, and identify and reduce uncertainties, biases and limitations.
Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalNature Reviews Earth and Environment
StatePublished - Jun 20 2023

Bibliographical note

KAUST Repository Item: Exported on 2023-07-12
Acknowledgements: The authors acknowledge the Aspen Global Change Institute and D. Lawrence for their support in this topic and our discussions. H.K. acknowledges the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF) grant Funded by the Korea Government (MSIT) (2021H1D3A2A03097768) and Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) as a part of the Belmont Forum under the grant number JPMJBF2101. Y.P. acknowledges support from the National Science Foundation (Awards #: 1752729 and 2127643). L.B., C.M., W.D., and L.Z., acknowledge support from the European Space Agency projects IRRIGATION+ (contract number 4000129870/20/I-NB) and 4DMED-Hydrology (4000136272/21/I-EF). P.V. and A.D.J. acknowledge support from the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, as part of research in the MultiSector Dynamics, Earth and Environmental System Modeling Program. W.T. acknowledges the DLR/BMBF (DE, grant no. 01LS1905A), NWO (NL), the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO) and the European Union for supporting the project ‘LAnd MAnagement for CLImate Mitigation and Adaptation’ (LAMACLIMA) (grant agreement no. 300478), which is part of ERA4CS, an ERA-NET initiated by JPI Climate. N.D.M. and L.S. acknowledge support from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FF-NIA19-0000000003). M.H.L acknowledges support from NSTC Grant 110-2628-M-002-004-MY4 and 111-2111-M-002-019. R. M. acknowledges support from an NSF Grant AGS-1853390. T.Y. is supported by MEXT-Program for the advanced studies of climate change projection (SENTAN) Grant Number JPMXD0722681344. J.J. was supported by the NASA GISS Climate Impacts Group and the Open Philanthropy Project.


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