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Journal of Arid Land  2021, Vol. 13 Issue (6): 639-652    DOI: 10.1007/s40333-021-0099-9
Research article     
A study on historical location and evolution of Lop Nor in China with maps and DEM
ZHANG Tingting1,2, SHAO Yun1,2,*(), GENG Yuyang1,3, GONG Huaze1, YANG Lan4
1Laboratory of Target Microwave Properties, Deqing Academy of Satellite Applications, Deqing 313200, China
2Aerospace Information Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100094, China
3University of Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing 100049, China
4China University of Geosciences, Beijing100083, China
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Lop Sea, located at the east end of the Tarim Basin, Northwest China, dried up permanently, which is the terminal lake of the Tarim River. Lop Sea was considered as the lake basin of Lop Nor since Quaternary. However, the possibility that Lop Nor was away from the Lop Sea in historical time is crucial to be discussed to interpret the proxy records in sediment profiles. To obtain a general view of the evolution of Lop Nor and Lop Sea in a historical period, several approaches were adopted in this paper. First, the Qianlong Thirteen-Row Atlas, an ancient imperial atlas of the Qing Dynasty, which was completed around 1760, indicated that the Tarim River formed a relatively large lake at its modern upstream region. Second, a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) with a 10-m spatial resolution and a relative precision of 0.42 m was derived from TanDEM-X/TerraSAR-X satellite image pairs using the interferometry method, which was verified using ICESat-GLAS laser footprints and a local DEM acquired by a drone. Finally, based on the spatial analysis of historical documents, expedition reports, sediment profiles and archaeological evidence, it can be deduced that the lacustrine deposition was discontinued in the Lop Sea. Six episodes in the evolutionary history of the drainage system in eastern Tarim Basin were summarized. The proved depositional condition variations could be used for future interpretation of proxy records in sediment. The high-accurate DEM provided a reference for the location of further fieldwork in the Lop Sea. The method proposed in this paper may be efficient for the research of inland lakes or rivers in global arid regions.

Key wordsLop Sea      historical period      lake basin topography      TanDEM-X InSAR      lacustrine deposit      drainage evolution     
Received: 21 September 2020      Published: 10 June 2021
Corresponding Authors: SHAO Yun     E-mail:
About author: SHAO Yun (E-mail:
Cite this article:

ZHANG Tingting, SHAO Yun, GENG Yuyang, GONG Huaze, YANG Lan. A study on historical location and evolution of Lop Nor in China with maps and DEM. Journal of Arid Land, 2021, 13(6): 639-652.

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Fig. 1 Sketch map of Lop Region. Lakes and courses according toHedin (1905), Hörner and Chen (1935), and Qianlong Thirteen-Row Atlas (Wang and Liu, 2007). The names of the ancient city ruins follow Stein (1921). The term 'Lop Sea' follows Hörner and Chen (1935) to distinguish Lop Nor in other periods. Contours are derived from SRTM (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission,
Fig. 2 Drainage system of the Tarim Basin at present. Tinted SRTM DEM (Digital Elevation Model) map represents the topography of the Tarim Basin, see the color bar for detail.
Fig. 3 Distribution of Co-registered Single look Slant range Complex (CoSSC) image pairs and Geoscience Laser Altimeter System (GLAS) footprints, with SRTM as the background elevation reference
Town Lat1 Lon1 Lat2 Lon2 Lat0 Lon0 Lat1-Lat0 Lat1-Lat0 Lat2-Lat0 Lat2-Lat0
Luntai 41°44′00′′ 84°16′27.00′′ 41°32′31.20′′ 83°27′22.80′′ 41°46′30.00′′ 84°15′15.00′′ -2′31.80′′ 1′12.00′′ -14′0.60′′ -47′52.20′′
Kuche 41°37′00′′ 82°54′27.00′′ 41°24′9.00′′ 82°00′37.80′′ 41°42′57.60′′ 82°57′1.20′′ -5′57.60′′ -5′56.40′′ -18′48.60′′ -56′23.40′′
Luke-qin 42°48′00′′ 90°12′27.00′′ 42°46′15.60′′ 90°04′13.80′′ 42°44′41.40′′ 89°45′34.80′′ 3′18.60′′ 26′52.80′′ 1′34.20′′ 18′39.60′′
Turpan 43°04′00′′ 89°38′27.00′′ 42°56′34.20′′ 89°37′32.40′′ 42°56′59.40′′ 89°11′19.20′′ 7′0.60′′ 27′8.40′′ -0′25.20′′ 26′13.20′′
Hara-shar 42°07′00′′ 87°06′27.00′′ 42°11′39.00′′ 86°31′43.20′′ 42°03′46.80′′ 86°34′10.80′′ 3′13.20′′ 32′16.20′′ 7′52.80′′ -2′27.00′′
Korla 41°46′00′′ 86°27′27.00′′ 41°30′28.80′′ 85°51′45.00′′ 41°44′3.60′′ 86°10′21.60′′ 1′56.40′′ 17′5.40′′ -13′34.80′′ -18′36.60′′
Table 1 Coordinates of main towns near Lop Nor
Fig. 4 InSAR DEM and the error distribution. The missing northeastern and western regions are patched with SRTM DEM calibrated by GLAS for better presentation, with red polylines as separation. The size of each error point is directly proportional to the absolute value of its error, and its color represents its quantity.
Fig. 5 Comparison of DEM for the ruin LK from different resources. (a) InSAR DEM; (b) aerial photogrammetry SfM DEM. The color ramp is the same as in Figure 4. The both are projected on WGS84 UTM Zone 45N. NE, northeast; SW, southwest; SE, southeast.
Site Elevation (m) Error
InSAR SfM InSAR relative SfM relative
Reference zero height 793.600 791.739 0.000 0.000 -
Northeast wall 800.000 799.177 6.400 7.438 -1.038
Southwest wall 799.800 800.775 6.200 9.036 -2.836
Southeast wall 797.400 795.837 3.800 4.098 -0.298
Northern depression 793.600 790.307 0.000 -1.432 1.432
Southern depression 795.800 791.679 2.200 -0.060 2.260
Table 2 Relative elevation differences of the two DEMs
Fig. 6 Interpretation of InSAR DEM. It is projected on WGS84 UTM Zone 46N. The color ramp is the same as in Figure 4. Pit I is the location of Liu et al. (2016). Pit II is the location of Ma et al. (2008). The red dotted line square demonstrates the spatial range of Loulan.
Fig. 7 Error analysis of Qing Lop Nor projected on WGS84 UTM Zone 45N. Error ellipses of river mouth are drawn by red lines. Map of Hedin 1896 is compared, with SRTM as an elevation reference background.
Fig. 8 (a) Grain size at Pit I (Liu et al., 2016; Zhang et al., 2012) and (b) Pit II (Ma et al., 2008), re-interpreted in this paper. The dating of Pit I was OSL from Zhang et al. (2012). Dating of Pit II was radiocarbon age of reed root in sediment. The blue rectangle represents the period with water supply.
Fig. 9 Sketch map of the inferred evolution episodes of the lower Tarim River and Lop Nor over the past 2000 a. The water area of the lower Tarim River was labeled in each subfigure. The cylindrical equal-area projection was used to project the maps. The water area is in blue polygons, and their outlines are dotted lines if the location was speculated without direct field evidence. (a), 0-400 AD was based on topographic data and the locations of the ruins; (b), 1260-1450 AD was based on the discussion above. (c), 1760 AD was adopted from the Qianlong Thirteen-Row Atlas; (d), 1879-1901 AD was integrated from the expedition reports ofHedin (1940); (e), 1906 AD was recovered by the descriptions of Huntington (1907a); and (f), the map was the surveying results of Hörner and Chen (1935).
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