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Journal of Arid Land  2021, Vol. 13 Issue (12): 1215-1229    DOI: 10.1007/s40333-021-0028-y
Original article     
Contribution of underlying terrain to sand dunes: evidence from the Qaidam Basin, Northwest China
LI Jiyan1,*(), QU Xin1, DONG Zhibao2, CAI Yingying1, LIU Min1, REN Xiaozong1, CUI Xujia1
1School of Geography Science, Taiyuan Normal University, Jinzhong 030619, China
2School of Geography and Tourism, Shaanxi Normal University, Xi'an 710119, China
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Underlying terrain strongly influences dune formation. However, the impacts of underlying terrain on the dune formation are poorly studied. In the present research, we focused on dunes that formed in the alluvial fans and dry salt flats in the Qaidam Basin, Northwest China. We quantified the dunes' sediment characteristics on different types of underlying terrain and the terrain's effects on the surface quartz grains by analyzing grain-size distribution, soluble salt contents and grain surface micro-textures. Results showed that barchan dunes were dominated by medium sands with a unimodal frequency distribution, whose peak corresponded to the saltation load. Linear dunes were mainly composed of fine sands with a bimodal frequency distribution, whose main peak represented the saltation load, and whose secondary peak represented the modified saltation or suspension load. Sand was transported from source area by running water (inland rivers) over short distances and by wind over relatively longer distances. Thus, quartz grains had poor roundness and were dominated by sub-angular and angular shapes. Surface micro-textures indicated that dune sands were successively transported by exogenic agents (glaciation, fluviation and wind). Soluble salt contents were low in dunes that developed in the alluvial fans, which represented a low-energy chemical environment, so the grain surface micro-textures mainly resulted from mechanical erosion, with weak micro-textures formed by SiO2 solution and precipitation. However, soluble salt contents were much higher in dunes that developed in the dry salt flats, which indicated a high-energy chemical environment. Therefore, in addition to micro-structures caused by mechanical erosion, micro-textures formed by SiO2 solution and precipitation also well developed. Our results improve understanding of the sediment characteristics of dune sands and the effects of underlying terrain on dune development in the Qaidam Basin, China.

Key wordsdune      grain-size distribution      soluble salts      surface micro-texture      Qaidam Basin     
Received: 08 August 2021      Published: 10 December 2021
Corresponding Authors: *LI Jiyan (E-mail:
Cite this article:

LI Jiyan, QU Xin, DONG Zhibao, CAI Yingying, LIU Min, REN Xiaozong, CUI Xujia. Contribution of underlying terrain to sand dunes: evidence from the Qaidam Basin, Northwest China. Journal of Arid Land, 2021, 13(12): 1215-1229.

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Fig. 1 (a), geographical settings of the Qaidam Basin; (b), location of samples.
Fig. 2 Location and sampling position of the study dunes
Fig. 3 Sample positions of dune surface sediments for barchan (BD, a) and linear (LD, b) dunes. SSW, south-southwest; NNE, north-northeast.
Sample Clay
salt (%)
Mz (φ) σI SKI Kg
BD01 0.00 0.00 0.13 36.51 61.10 2.13 0.00 0.13 1.84 0.44 0.01 0.95
BD02 0.00 0.00 0.68 36.92 57.75 4.62 0.00 0.03 1.83 0.51 0.01 0.95
BD03 0.00 0.91 0.41 11.36 59.10 27.32 0.00 0.90 1.35 0.56 0.04 0.96
LD01-1 7.76 22.80 15.76 24.68 17.83 2.03 0.00 9.14 3.65 2.21 0.46 1.12
LD01-2 7.28 12.74 26.88 39.87 8.15 0.00 0.00 5.09 3.57 1.82 0.60 2.15
LD01-3 5.43 12.45 14.24 33.24 24.90 2.24 0.00 7.51 2.92 1.78 0.50 1.77
LD01-4 12.02 33.42 19.29 16.34 7.92 0.18 0.00 10.83 4.56 2.37 0.36 1.03
LD02-1 0.42 1.68 9.46 23.02 20.51 28.59 15.33 0.99 1.36 1.29 0.12 0.76
LD02-2 1.58 3.36 16.92 69.72 6.99 0.00 0.00 1.42 2.65 0.72 0.30 2.12
LD02-3 0.17 1.31 3.19 10.71 34.74 41.07 8.16 0.65 1.08 0.90 0.19 1.11
LD02-4 6.98 32.39 15.59 14.67 5.21 4.22 2.54 18.39 4.20 2.36 0.17 1.07
LD03-1 0.03 0.86 1.35 0.43 16.86 55.56 24.27 0.65 0.45 0.64 0.04 0.99
LD03-2 2.47 4.62 33.89 55.62 1.14 0.00 0.00 2.26 2.93 0.85 0.36 2.59
LD03-3 1.91 6.91 14.63 23.86 27.58 20.40 1.53 3.18 2.04 1.54 0.26 1.27
LD03-4 7.26 19.24 17.90 23.73 15.20 8.16 0.59 7.92 3.42 2.19 0.34 1.16
Table 1 Grain-size fractions and soluble salt contents for dune surface sediments
Fig. 4 Grain-size frequency (blue line) and cumulative frequency (red line) curves for dune surface sediments
Fig. 5 Grain-size parameters (σI, sorting (a); SKI, skewness (b); Kg, kurtosiss (c)) for dune surface sediments as a function of mean particle size (Mz)
Fig. 6 Relationship between sand content and total content of silt, clay and salt
Sample Rounded (%) Sub-rounded (%) Sub-angular (%) Angular (%)
BD01 (n=28) 21.43 32.14 32.14 14.29
BD02 (n=22) 4.55 45.45 50.00 0.00
BD03 (n=24) 4.17 37.50 41.67 16.67
LD01-1 (n=48) 0.00 29.17 41.67 29.17
LD01-2 (n=32) 3.13 37.50 40.63 18.75
LD01-3 (n=33) 12.12 42.42 18.18 27.27
LD01-4 (n=50) 0.00 26.00 48.00 26.00
LD02-1 (n=35) 5.71 11.43 48.57 34.29
LD02-2 (n=44) 0.00 6.82 38.64 54.55
LD02-3 (n=21) 19.05 14.29 38.10 28.57
LD02-4 (n=38) 0.00 18.42 55.26 26.32
LD03-1 (n=10) 0.00 50.00 40.00 10.00
LD03-2 (n=38) 0.00 10.53 44.74 44.74
LD03-3 (n=23) 0.00 21.74 69.57 8.70
LD03-4 (n=30) 3.33 10.00 30.00 56.67
Table 2 Frequency of roundness features of quartz sand grains for dune surface sediments
Sedimentary environment Micro-texture and corresponding code
Mechanical erosion Glacial environment Conchoidal fracture-1, cleavage plane-2, striation-3, impact pits-4
Subaqueous environment Subaqueous polished surface-5, V-shaped depression-6, straight impact groove-7, bent impact groove-8
Aeolian environment Crescent-shaped depression-9, dish-shaped depression-10, pockmarked pit-11, upturned cleavage plate-12
Chemical environment SiO2 solution Solution pits-13, solution grooves-14, scaly exfoliation-15
SiO2 precipitation Siliceous sphere-16, siliceous scale-17, siliceous film-18, botryoidal precipitate of SiO2-19
Table 3 Relationship between surface micro-textures of quartz sand grains and exogenic agents responsible for these features
Fig. 7 Surface micro-textures of quartz sand grains for sand dune sediments. The connotations of the numbers are explained in Table 3.
Fig. 8 Frequency of surface micro-textures on quartz sand grains. Table 3 defines the meaning of the numbers for micro-texture type and Figure 7 illustrates these features.
Fig. 9 Lake water that has entered inter-dune area in the field of linear dunes during spring melting of snow and ice
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