A Dust Pile the Size of Arizona is Slowly Moving Across China

Illustration for article titled A Dust Pile the Size of Arizona is Slowly Moving Across China

In China, west and slightly south of Beijing, lies the Ordos Basin. It resembles a teenager’s messy room—one corner is flat and clear, and the other is a giant pile of debris. And when we say, “giant,” we mean “the size of a state”—nd it’s on the move.

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Up at the northwest end, the Ordos Basin has the Mu Us Desert, a small offshoot of the giant Gobi desert. Wind sweeps across the Mu Us Desert, taking with it sheets of debris and dust. In some areas, this dust would sprinkle over the land nearby, covering it with fine layers that eventually sink or blend into the soil. However, the dust from the Mu Us does something a little different, and it forms the other prominent feature of the Ordos Basin.

The Loess Plateau is made entirely of this dust, and the wind is slowly driving this massive plateau across the continent. The dust is currently forming a rough crescent around the Mu Us Desert, but that shape may change. According to the paper on the subject, “Our observations suggest that the Loess Plateau previously extended farther to the north and west of its modern windward escarpment margin and has been partially reworked by eolian processes.”

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[Source: From Dust to Dust: Quaternary Wind Erosion of the Mu Us Desert and Loess Plateau, China]

Image: Paul Kapp/ University of Arizona Department of Geosciences

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DISCUSSION

I really don’t think I’d go so far as to call the Loess Plateau a pile of “dust”. It’s once fertile farmland that has been undergoing desertification for a long time. People there live in caves dug in to the soil, so not quite the mental image “a dust pile” brings up in our minds.

China has tried a few times to save the Loess Plateau. Too many years of deforestation in favor of terraced farms has doomed it to erode away.