Journal of Geographical Sciences ›› 2019, Vol. 29 ›› Issue (5): 730-748.doi: 10.1007/s11442-019-1624-z

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Quantifying the vertical distribution pattern of land-use conversion in the loess hilly region of northern Shaanxi Province 1995-2015

Zhi CAO1,2(), Yurui LI1,2,*(), Zhengjia LIU1,2, Lingfan YANG3   

  1. 1. Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS, Beijing 100101, China
    2. Center for Assessment and Research on Targeted Poverty Alleviation, CAS, Beijing 100101, China
    3. Faculty of Geographical Sciences, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China
  • Received:2018-07-20 Accepted:2018-12-20 Online:2019-05-25 Published:2019-04-19
  • Contact: Yurui LI;
  • About author:

    Author: Cao Zhi, PhD, specialized in land science and rural development. E-mail:

  • Supported by:
    National Key Research and Development Program of China, No.2017YFC0504701;National Natural Science Foundation of China, No.41801175;Postdoctoral Science Foundation of China, No.2018M631558


The mountainous and hilly region plays an important role in ecological safety and production in China. However, recent studies have poorly characterized the parallel structure of land use in the valleys of the mountainous and hilly region using topographic factors (e.g. elevation, slope, aspect). Here, the loess hilly region of northern Shaanxi Province is used as a representative case area to analyze the vertical distribution pattern of land-use conversion using the relative elevation concept and the HAND index. The differences in the vertical structure of land-use conversion between absolute elevation and relative elevation were compared. We found that the classifications of absolute and relative elevation had similar proportions of each relative elevation grade in each absolute elevation grade. Cropland, woodland, and grassland were distributed evenly in each grade of absolute/relative elevation, while water body, built-up land and unused land were more likely to spread in low grades of relative elevation than those of absolute elevation. The land-use conversion (i.e. loss of cropland and gain in woodland and built-up land) showed an apparently stepped distribution with relative elevation classification, suitable for revealing vertical distributions of land-use conversion in the loess hilly region. Cropland transformed to woodland was mainly distributed in high grade of relative elevation, decreasing with a decrease in grades, while built-up land transformed from cropland and grassland was mainly distributed in low grade of relative elevation, decreasing with increases in grades. The grade of relative elevation where cropland transformed to woodland descended with the implementation of the Grain for Green Project. Our results suggest that it is better to analyze the vertical distribution of land-use conversion with relative elevation classification in hilly regions.

Key words: land use change, vertical distribution pattern, topographic factors, HAND (Height above the Nearest Drainage), loess hilly region, northern Shaanxi Province