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Journal of Arid Land  2020, Vol. 12 Issue (6): 917-936    DOI: 10.1007/s40333-020-0104-8
Research article     
Near-surface wind environment in the Yarlung Zangbo River basin, southern Tibetan Plateau
YANG Junhuai1, XIA Dunsheng1,*(), WANG Shuyuan1, TIAN Weidong1, MA Xingyue1, CHEN Zixuan1, GAO Fuyuan2, LING Zhiyong1,3, DONG Zhibao4
1Key Laboratory of Western China's Environmental Systems (Ministry of Education), College of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Lanzhou University, Lanzhou 730000, China
2College of Geography and Environmental Engineering, Lanzhou City University, Lanzhou 730070, China
3Key Laboratory of Comprehensive and Highly Efficient Utilization of Salt Lake Resources, Qinghai Institute of Salt Lakes, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Xining 810008, China
4School of Geography and Tourism, Shaanxi Normal University, Xi'an 710119, China
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Aeolian processes have been studied extensively at low elevations, but have been relatively little studied at high elevations. Aeolian sediments are widely distributed in the Yarlung Zangbo River basin, southern Tibetan Plateau, which is characterized by low pressure and low temperature. Here, we comprehensively analyzed the wind regime using data since 1980 from 11 meteorological stations in the study area, and examined the interaction between the near-surface wind and aeolian environment. The wind environment exhibited significant spatial and temporal variation, and mean wind speed has generally decreased on both annual and seasonal bases since 1980, at an average of 0.181 m/(s·10a). This decrease resulted from the reduced contribution of maximum wind speed, and depended strongly on variations of the frequency of sand-driving winds. The drift potential and related parameters also showed obvious spatial and temporal variation, with similar driving forces for the wind environment. The strength of the wind regime affected the formation and development of the aeolian geomorphological pattern, but with variation caused by local topography and sediment sources. The drift potential and resultant drift direction were two key parameters, as they quantify the dynamic conditions and depositional orientation of the aeolian sediments. Wind affected the spatial variation in sediment grain size, but the source material and complex topographic effects on the near-surface wind were the underlying causes for the grain size distribution of aeolian sands. These results will support efforts to control aeolian desertification in the basin and improve our understanding of aeolian processes in high-elevation environments.

Key wordswind regime      sand dune      aeolian activity      Yarlung Zangbo River      Tibetan Plateau     
Received: 07 July 2020      Published: 10 November 2020
Corresponding Authors: Dunsheng XIA     E-mail:
About author: *XIA Dunsheng (E-mail:
Cite this article:

YANG Junhuai, XIA Dunsheng, WANG Shuyuan, TIAN Weidong, MA Xingyue, CHEN Zixuan, GAO Fuyuan, LING Zhiyong, DONG Zhibao. Near-surface wind environment in the Yarlung Zangbo River basin, southern Tibetan Plateau. Journal of Arid Land, 2020, 12(6): 917-936.

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Fig. 1 Tibetan Plateau and its major atmospheric systems (a), and the distribution of the main sandy land, the location of sample sites (numbered S1 to S6 from west to east) and meteorological stations in and near the Yarlung Zangbo River basin (b). The data from site S6, in the Mainling wide valley, were obtained from Zhou et al. (2011). Station names: PR, Purang; TR, Tingri; LZ, Lhaze; SGS, Shigatse; GT, Gyantse; NM, Nyemo; NGZ, Nagarze; LS, Lhasa; ZT, Zetang; NC, Nyingchi; BM, Bome.
Fig. 2 Visible evidence of aeolian activity in the Yarlung Zangbo River basin. The blue arrows indicate the location of the river, and the white arrows indicate the direction of sand transport. E, east. Photos were taken by Dr. YANG Junhuai from 15 to 28 November 2019.
Parameter Wide valley name
Maquanhe Shigatse Shannan Mainling
Mean elevation (m) 5000 4000 3700 3000
Air density (kg/m3) 0.74 0.82 0.85 0.91
Coefficient A 0.072 0.075 0.076 0.077
Mean grain size (mm) 0.29 (n=14) 0.24 (n=14) 0.25 (n=7) 0.13 (n=41)*
Threshold shear velocity (m/s) 8.0 7.2 7.3 5.4
Table 1 Mean elevation, air density, coefficient A, and mean grain size of dune sands in the wide valleys of the Yarlung Zangbo River basin, and corresponding threshold velocity for sand entrainment
DP (VU) Wind energy environment RDP/DP Directional variability Wind direction category
<200 Low <0.3 High Complex or obtuse bimodal
200-400 Intermediate 0.3-0.8 Intermediate Obtuse or acute bimodal
>400 High >0.8 Low Wide or narrow unimodal
Table 2 Classification of wind energy environments proposed by Fryberger and Dean (1979)
Parameter Time Wide valley name
Maquanhe Shigatse Shannan Mainling
Vt Vs F Vt Vs F Vt Vs F Vt Vs F
Umean Annual 3.3a 9.0a 0.5 2.1b 8.3b 0.4 2.0c 8.1b 0.2 1.6d 5.9c 0.1
Spring 3.3 2.9 0.2 3.0 7.9 0.8 2.4 7.8 0.3 1.9 6.1 0.3
Summer 3.7 2.9 0.2 1.7 - - 1.7 2.4 0.0 1.4 - -
Autumn 3.2 8.4 0.3 1.7 2.7 0.02 1.6 - - 1.4 1.9 0.03
Winter 3.0 9.5 1.1 2.2 8.5 0.9 2.1 8.3 0.6 1.7 5.8 0.2
Umax Annual 7.0a 9.0b 30.0 7.0a 9.2a 42.8 5.6b 8.4c 16.8 4.8c 6.4d 35.0
Spring 7.4 9.1 37.9 8.1 9.4 63.0 6.3 8.5 26.8 5.3 6.5 49.0
Summer 7.9 8.9 46.9 6.4 8.5 31.1 5.4 8.3 11.4 4.5 6.3 27.7
Autumn 6.6 8.9 16.2 5.9 8.6 26.4 4.9 8.2 7.7 4.4 6.2 24.1
Winter 6.1 9.2 18.9 7.4 9.7 50.0 5.6 8.4 20.9 4.8 6.4 39.0
Table 3 Mean value of wind parameters for mean wind speed (Umean, 1980-2015) and maximum wind speed (Umax, 2007-2015) in the wide valleys of the Yarlung Zangbo River basin
Fig. 3 Temporal variations in three parameters for the mean wind speed (1980-2015) (a-d) and the maximum wind speeds (2007-2015) (e-h) in the wide valleys of the Yarlung Zangbo River basin
Fig. 4 Seasonal variations in the mean wind speed (1980-2015) and the maximum wind speed (2007-2015) in the wide valleys of the Yarlung Zangbo River basin. k is the slope of the regression and represents the long-term trends for the wind speed; R2 represents the regression goodness of fit; ** is significant at P<0.01; and * is significant at P<0.05.
Meteorological station Cmax (%)
Annual Spring Summer Autumn Winter
Shigatse 47.6 94.5 51.5 65.2 48.9
Lhasa 90.6 65.8 50.8 49.0 50.8
Zetang 59.5 60.3 53.7 60.6 66.9
Nyingchi 66.1 48.8 58.5 94.5 69.1
Table 4 Contribution of the maximum wind speed to the variation in the wind environment (Cmax)
Fig. 5 Wind energy environment in the four typical wide valleys of the Yarlung Zangbo River basin. DP, drift potential; RDP, resultant drift potential; RDP/DP, directional variability; RDD, resultant drift direction.
Fig. 6 Wind energy environment at 11 meteorological stations in and near the Yarlung Zangbo River basin, and contour intervals for the DP calculated by kriging interpolation
Fig. 7 Temporal variations in the wind environment at the four meteorological stations with a long statistical period (1980-2015). The dashed lines in this figure represent the boundaries for the wind energy regimes defined in Table 2.
Fig. 8 Temporal variations in the wind environment at the four wide valleys (2007-2015). The dashed lines in (c) and (d) represent the boundaries for the wind energy regimes defined in Table 2.
Fig. 9 Seasonal variations in the wind environments of the four wide valleys (2007-2015)
Fig. 10 The relationship between the DP and the area of aeolian sandy land. The data for the areas in the four wide valleys was obtained from Liu et al. (2019).
Fig. 11 Relationship between the RDD and dune orientation (dashed line represents y=x) (a). The dune orientation and migration direction (orange arrows) in the Mainling wide valley shown in Figure 1 (center coordinates: 29°08′43.06″, 93°45′56.28″; Image credit: Google Earth) (b).
Sample site Percentage (%) in each size category (mm) Mean size (mm) Sorting (φ) Skewness Kurtosis
Silt and clay (<0.063) Very fine (0.063-0.125) Fine (0.125-0.25) Medium (0.25-0.50) Coarse (0.50-2.00)
S1 6.39 14.41 27.64 35.67 15.88 0.30 1.01 0.21 1.29
S2 6.74 4.81 42.05 42.22 4.18 0.25 0.90 0.25 1.70
S3 16.66 13.57 40.02 27.38 2.37 0.19 1.74 0.54 2.19
S4 4.74 12.61 35.15 35.60 11.90 0.28 0.95 0.10 1.04
S5 8.36 10.44 38.59 36.43 6.18 0.25 1.20 0.32 1.87
S6 10.16 30.00 56.47 3.16 0.23 0.13 0.92 0.35 2.07
Table 5 Grain size characteristics of barchan dunes in typical dune fields of the Yarlung Zangbo River basin
Fig. 12 Relationships between the percentage of different grain size fractions and the sand-driving wind speed
Sample site Deposition environment (% of total particles)
Aeolian Beach Shallow marine Turbidity current Fluvial
S1 - - 10.3 7.7 2.6
S2 7.7 - 5.1 - 7.7
S3 - - - - 20.5
S4 - - 10.3 5.1 2.6
S5 - - - - 20.5
Total 7.7 0 25.7 12.8 53.9
Table 6 Deposition environments for barchan dunes at six sample sites in the Yarlung Zangbo River basin
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