Carbon and water balance of European croplands throughout the 20th century



[1] We assessed the effects of rising atmospheric CO2, changing climate, and farmers' practice on the carbon and water balance of European croplands during the past century (1901–2000). The coupled vegetation-crop model ORCHIDEE-STICS is applied over western Europe for C3 crops (winter wheat) and for maize, with prescribed historical agricultural practice changes. Not surprisingly, the enormous crop yield increase observed in all European regions, 300–400% between 1950 and 2000, is found to be dominantly explained by improved practice and varieties selection, rather than by rising CO2 (explaining a ∼11% uniform increase in yield) and changing climate (no further change in yield on average, but causing a decrease of ∼19% in the southern Iberian Peninsula). Agricultural soil carbon stocks in Europe are modeled to have decreased between 1950 and 1970, and since then to have increased again. Thus, the current stocks only differ by 1 ± 6 tC ha−1 from their 1900 value. Compensating effects of increasing yields on the one hand (increasing stocks) and of higher harvest index values and ploughing on the other hand (decreasing stocks) occur. Each of these processes taken individually has the potential to strongly alter the croplands soil carbon balance in the model. Consequently, large uncertainties are associated to the estimated change in carbon stocks between 1901 and 2001, roughly ±6 tC ha−1 a−1. In our most realistic simulation, the current cropland carbon balance is a net sink of 0.16 ± 0.15 tC ha−1 a−1. The annual water balance of cropland soils is influenced by increasing crop water use efficiency, one third of which is caused by rising CO2. However, increasing water use efficiency occurred mainly in spring and winter, when water is not limiting for plant growth, whereas no strong savings of soil water are achieved in summer through elevated CO2. Overall, trends in cultivation practices have caused a 3 times larger increase of water use efficiency than rising CO2.