Researchers blanket the sand dunes of northern China with a “microbe mesh” to quell a looming Dust Bowl.
Shapotou, on the banks of the Yellow River in northern China’s Ningxia Province, is home to one of the world’s desert wonders. The “Musical Sands” of the desolate Tengger Desert, thanks to the properties of acoustic resonance, produce an orchestra of other-worldly sounds that have spawned centuries of legends and enthralled Western tourists.
Some of the planet’s tallest dunes reside in this brutally arid region on the skirts of the Gobi Desert. But it is also home to one of the most ambitious incentives aimed at reclaiming land that has become desertified as a result of human activity.
The recent stories of China’s war with its encroaching northern deserts, and the palpable effects on its cities further south, call to mind America’s own Dust Bowl experience in the not-so-distant past. Generations’ worth of aggressive agricultural expansion depleted the soil, leading to mass erosion, and subsistence farmers graze livestock in a climate where resources are increasingly scarce. Combined with severe drought, these forces have exhausted the landscape and created an avalanche of problems that threaten far more than the area’s natural productivity.
Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 2010.
Image: BBC News: “China sandstorm leaves Beijing shrouded in orange dust”
To counteract this dilemma, Chinese researchers in the 1950’s formed the Shapotou Desert Experimental Research Station to focus on rebuilding a stable eco-system that could slow the desertification process and serve as a buffer for the country’s temperate zones. They started from the ground up – literally.
The Shapotou sands of the 1950’s were essentially lifeless – the dry, pulverized, loess was devoid not only of vegetation to anchor the soil, but of the microbiological life that forms the building blocks of virtually all living systems.
The Shapotou dunes in the 1960s.
Image: Long Term Ecological Research Network
By laying out grids of microbe-inoculated straw, the scientists hoped to create a protective mulch that would help prevent the mass erosion of the sands and reintroduce microbial and fungal life fundamental to healthy soil.
This “microbe mesh” made growth possible for marginal desert plants, which further enriched the grid as each successive layer contributed to the life cycle through decomposition. The mulched land began to support larger plant and shrub growth, gradually reducing the amount of soil loss through wind, and critically, forming a self-sustaining green buffer around the desert zones.
Image: Visit Our China
Results released by the Chinese State Forestry Administration claim that in ten years the program has reduced the desertification rate by nearly half. Today, nearly half a century later, the greening of Shapotou has turned a wasteland into a thriving belt of orchards and vineyards.
The Chinese government has since launched an intensive forest-building effort and is taking steps to protect existing forest areas. The trees serve as windbreaks and soil anchors, and their deep root systems access precious water reservoirs beneath the deserts.
Where the Yellow River meets the Tengger. Image: West-Saga.com
Their hope is to expand the green corridor throughout the Yellow River basin, and between the Tengger Desert and the Badain Jaran of the Mongolian border – two deserts threatening to merge into a “super dune” that would quickly encroach south, engulfing large swaths of northern China and endangering the densely populated cities of lower China.
In the 50 years since the start of this initiative, the bush zone between these deserts has shrunk in half, but now Chinese scientists and officials hope to reverse this. Their experience in Shapotou has provided them with a solution.
So is it too early to declare this initiative a success? There are mixed opinions. The cost in terms of money and effort is steep, and strict conservation policies put a strain on the region’s subsistence farmers – hundreds, even thousands of whom will be displaced from land being converted into the green zone.
But without drastic steps being taken to reverse the combined effects of climate change and intensive human use, that land won’t be there in the future for the farmers or anyone else to use. The short-term costs may be high, but the risk of doing nothing is much more pressing.
Humans dealing with the direct and indirect effects of their actions on Nature is not a new problem; but our precarious position in relation to the natural world is now more tangible than ever. Desertification is one of the biggest issues facing the 21st century environment. The Shapotou research program’s promising results so far are a profound example of what a very basic solution can do to answer a very complex problem.