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Journal of Arid Land  2023, Vol. 15 Issue (6): 649-666    DOI: 10.1007/s40333-023-0057-9
Research article     
Aeolian activity in the southern Gurbantunggut Desert of China during the last 900 years
LI Wen1,2, MU Guijin3,*(), YE Changsheng2, XU Lishuai4, LI Gen2
1Key Laboratory for Digital Land and Resources of Jiangxi Province, East China University of Technology, Nanchang 330013, China
2School of Earth Sciences, East China University of Technology, Nanchang 330013, China
3Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Urumqi 830011, China
4College of Resources and Environment, Shanxi Agricultural University, Jinzhong 030801, China
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The mineral dust emitted from Central Asia has a significant influence on the global climate system. However, the history and mechanisms of aeolian activity in Central Asia remain unclear, due to the lack of well-dated records of aeolian activity and the intense wind erosion in some of the dust source areas (e.g., deserts). Here, we present the records of aeolian activity from a sedimentary sequence in the southern Gurbantunggut Desert of China using grain size analysis and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating, based on field sampling in 2019. Specifically, we used eight OSL dates to construct chronological frameworks and applied the end-member (EM) analysis for the grain size data to extract the information of aeolian activity in the southern Gurbantunggut Desert during the last 900 a. The results show that the grain size dataset can be subdivided into three EMs (EM1, EM2, and EM3). The primary modal sizes of these EMs (EM1, EM2, and EM3) are 126.00, 178.00, and 283.00 μm, respectively. EM1 represents a mixture of the suspension components and saltation dust, while EM2 and EM3 show saltation dust transported over a shorter distance via strengthened near-surface winds, which can be used to trace aeolian activity. Combined with the OSL chronology, our results demonstrate that during the last 900 a, more intensive and frequent aeolian activity occurred during 450-100 a BP (Before Present) (i.e., the Little Ice Age (LIA)), which was reflected by a higher proportion of the coarse-grained components (EM2+EM3). Aeolian activity decreased during 900-450 a BP (i.e., the Medieval Warm Period (MWP)) and 100 a BP-present (i.e., the Current Warm Period (CWP)). Intensified aeolian activity was associated with the strengthening of the Siberian High and cooling events at high northern latitudes. We propose that the Siberian High, under the influence of temperature changes at high northern latitudes, controlled the frequency and intensity of aeolian activity in Central Asia. Cooling at high northern latitudes would have significantly enhanced the Siberian High, causing its position to shift southward. Subsequently, the incursion of cold air masses from high northern latitudes resulted in stronger wind regimes and increased dust emissions from the southern Gurbantunggut Desert. It is possible that aeolian activity may be weakened in Central Asia under future global warming scenarios, but the impact of human activities on this region must also be considered.

Key wordsaeolian activity      grain size      wind regime      Little Ice Age      Siberian High      climatic drying      Central Asia     
Received: 14 September 2022      Published: 30 June 2023
Corresponding Authors: * MU Guijin (E-mail:
Cite this article:

LI Wen, MU Guijin, YE Changsheng, XU Lishuai, LI Gen. Aeolian activity in the southern Gurbantunggut Desert of China during the last 900 years. Journal of Arid Land, 2023, 15(6): 649-666.

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Fig. 1 Satellite image showing the sampling locations of profiles GEB11 (44°48′N, 86°37′E), GEB12 (44°41′N, 86°45′E), and GEB15 (44°42′N, 87°21′E) in the southern Gurbantunggut Desert. The image was downloaded from the National Platform for Common Geospatial Information Services (
Fig. 2 Variations in temperature and precipitation from 1961 to 2018 in the Gurbantunggut Desert (data from Liu (2020)), the number of gale days from 1961 to 2009 in the southern Gurbantunggut Desert (data from Yu et al. (2011)), and sandstorm frequency from 1961 to 2015 in the North Xinjiang (data from Li and Tang (2017)).
Fig. 3 Photographs showing the field area. (a and b), sand dunes and the underlying clay strata; (c), profile GEB11; (d and e), the dominant plant species (Haloxylon ammodendron) growing on the top of the dunes and in the interdune areas, respectively.
Profile Depth (cm) Detailed information of stratum Detailed information of sediment and OSL dating samples
GEB11 0-80 Gray fine sand with abundant plant roots. The top 15 cm layer contained horizontal bedding, while the 15-80 cm layer lacked well-defined bedding. Totally 70 sediment samples were sampled at 10-cm intervals, and 4 OSL dating samples were sampled at the depths of 100, 300, 500, and 700 cm, respectively.
80-200 Gray fine sand with occasional roots and well-developed oblique bedding.
200-600 Ale-gray fine sand with no clear bedding. Occasional roots were observed at the depths of 320-330, 410-440, and 480-500 cm.
600-700 Gray fine sand with horizontal bedding and low soil water content.
GEB12 0-105 Gray fine sand with abundant plant roots and well-developed horizontal bedding. The interval of 90-105 cm depth contained occasional traces of white calcareous cement. Totally 34 sediment samples were sampled at 5-cm intervals, and 2 OSL dating samples were sampled at the depths of 100 and 140 cm, respectively.
105-120 Dark-red clay with well-developed horizontal bedding; 120-140 cm depth: greyish-green fine sand with a flat upper surface and well-developed horizontal bedding.
140-170 Clay fine silt with black rusty mottles. The intervals of 140-155 and 155-170 cm depths were dark red and grayish-yellow, respectively.
GEB15 0-140 Gray fine sand with well-developed bedding and occasional plant roots. Totally 39 sediment samples were sampled at 5-cm intervals, and 2 OSL dating samples were sampled at the depths of 130 and 160 cm, respectively.
140-195 Dark red clay with a flat upper surface and thin horizontal bedding.
Table 1 Detailed information of profiles GEB11, GEB12, and GEB15 selected in this study
Sample No. Depth
Dose rate
(a BP)
GEB11-1 100 19.5±6.1 13.3±0.5 15.9±0.5 391.5±13.8 1.9±0.1 0.6±0.04 300±100
GEB11-3 300 17.1±6.5 13.7±0.5 17.5±0.5 412.0±14.6 2.0±0.1 1.4±0.10 700±100
GEB11-5 500 21.1±6.0 13.4±0.5 16.1±0.5 405.4±0.5 1.9±0.1 1.4±0.10 800±100
GEB11-7 700 11.4±7.0 16.3±0.5 18.8±0.5 426.1±15.1 2.0±0.1 1.8±0.10 900±100
GEB12-2 100 21.8±6.7 16.0±0.5 20.2±0.5 415.7±14.7 2.1±0.1 0.8±0.09 400±100
GEB12-3 140 18.1±5.1 13.8±0.4 15.5±0.4 300.4±10.7 1.6±0.1 1.7±0.10 1000±100
GEB15-2 130 23.7±6.7 16.7±0.5 22.2±0.6 431.4±15.2 2.2±0.1 0.7±0.03 300±100
GEB15-3 160 42.0±7.6 21.9±0.6 31.4±0.7 282.6±10.9 2.6±0.1 2.9±0.10 1100±100
Table 2 Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating results for the three sand dune profiles (GEB11, GEB12, and GEB15)
Fig. 4 Age-depth relationship for profile GEB11
Fig. 5 Grain size results for profile GEB11. (a-d), depth profiles of clay+silt, very fine sand, fine sand, and medium sand fractions, respectively; (e), depth profile of the mean grain size; (f), grain size frequency distribution curves; (g), cumulative grain size frequency distribution curves.
Fig. 6 Grain size frequency distribution curves of EM1-EM3 (a), and depth profiles of the abundance of EM1-EM3 (b-d). EM1, end-member 1; EM2, end-member 2; EM3, end-member 3.
Fig. 7 Cumulative grain size probability curves of EM1, EM2, and EM3. As shown in this figure, EM1 represents a mixture of suspension and saltation dust, while EM2 and EM3 represent saltation dust.
Fig. 8 Comparison of proxy age records of aeolian activity in Central Asia. (a), profile GEB11 in the southern Gurbantunggut Desert (this study); (b), fraction with grain size >19.35 μm in the sediments of the Bosten Lake, China (Zhou et al., 2019); (c), fraction with grain size >84.00 μm in the sediments of Yangchang loess profile from the southern margin of the Taklimakan Desert, China (Han et al., 2019); (d), mean grain size of the KMA loess profile on the northern slope of the Kunlun Mountains, China (Tang et al., 2009); (e), Pb concentration in the Halashazi peatland of the Altay Mountains, China (Xu, 2014); (f), Ti concentration in the sediments of the Aral Sea, Central Asia (Sorrel et al., 2007); (g), grain size ratio (ratio of grain sizes 6.00-32.00 μm to grain sizes 2.00-6.00 μm) in the Aral Sea, Central Asia (Huang et al., 2011); (h), fraction with grain size of 56.00-282.50 μm in the sediments of the Sugan Lake on the northern Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, China (Chen et al., 2013); (i), frequency of dust falls since 900 a BP (Before Present) (Zhang, 1984); (j), 50-a averaged synthesis dust storm record across the mid-latitude Asia (He et al., 2015). MWP, Medieval Warm Period; LIA, Little Ice Age; CWP, Current Warm Period.
Fig. 9 Field photos showing the locations of optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) samples for sand dune profiles GEB12 (a-b) and GEB15 (c-d) in the southern Gurbantunggut Desert
Fig. 10 Comparison of the records of aeolian activity in profile GEB11 in the southern Gurbantunggut Desert with possible driving mechanisms. (a), EM2+EM3 in profile GEB11 in the southern Gurbantunggut Desert; (b), synthesis of the records of effective moisture in Central Asia (Chen et al., 2010); (c), ice-rafted debris records from the North Atlantic (Bond et al., 1997); (d), non-sea salt ion (nssK+) records from the GISP2 Greenland ice core (Mayewski and Maasch, 2006); (e), reconstruction of the strength of the Siberian High reflected by the sea-level pressure (SLP) over the North Atlantic and Asia (Meeker and Mayewski, 2002); (f), standardized temperature anomaly records for the western Central Asia (Esper et al., 2007).
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