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Journal of Arid Land  2023, Vol. 15 Issue (11): 1340-1354    DOI: 10.1007/s40333-023-0032-5
Research article     
Contribution of groundwater to the formation of sand dunes in the Badain Jaran Desert, China
WANG Wang1, CHEN Jiaqi2,*(), CHEN Jiansheng3, WANG Tao4, ZHAN Lucheng4, ZHANG Yitong1, MA Xiaohui5
1College of Civil and Transportation Engineering, Hohai University, Nanjing 210098, China
2School of Computer and Information, Hohai University, Nanjing 210098, China
3Water Science Research Institute, Hohai University, Nanjing 211100, China
4College of Water Conservancy and Hydropower Engineering, Hohai University, Nanjing 210098, China
5Water Affairs Integrated Service Centre of Alagxa League, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Alagxa League 750300, China
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The tallest sand dune worldwide is located in the Badain Jaran Desert (BJD), China, and has been standing for thousands of years. Previous studies have conducted limited physical exploration and excavation on the formation of sand dunes and have proposed three viewpoints, that is, bedrock control, wind dominance, and groundwater maintenance with no unified conclusion. Therefore, this study analyzed the underlying bedding structure of sand dunes in the BJD. Although the bedrock of sand dunes is uplifted and wind controls the shape of dunes, the main cause of dune formation is groundwater that maintains the deposition of calcareous sandstone and accumulation of aeolian sand. According to water transport model and vapor transports in the unsaturated zone of sand dunes, capillary water transport height is limited with film water constituting the main form of water in dunes. Chemical properties and temperature of groundwater showed that aquifers in different basins receive relatively independent recharge from deep sources in the crater. Result of dune formation mechanism is of considerable importance in understanding groundwater circulation and provides a new perspective on water management in arid desert areas.

Key wordssand dune formation      groundwater      unsaturated zone      water content      desert water resource     
Received: 28 June 2023      Published: 30 November 2023
Corresponding Authors: * CHEN Jiaqi (E-mail:
Cite this article:

WANG Wang, CHEN Jiaqi, CHEN Jiansheng, WANG Tao, ZHAN Lucheng, ZHANG Yitong, MA Xiaohui. Contribution of groundwater to the formation of sand dunes in the Badain Jaran Desert, China. Journal of Arid Land, 2023, 15(11): 1340-1354.

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Fig. 1 Location map of study area. (a), location of the Badain Jaran Desert (BJD) and sampling distribution; (b), sand dune excavation site; (c)-(e), field discovery; (f)-(h), sampling dunes; (i), inner structure of inter-dune basin 5# and the black rectangles are the drill holes. TDS, total dissolved solutes. Gurinai Lake is a dry lake.
Borehole number Longitude Latitude Surface elevation (m) Drilling depth (m) Depth of groundwater (m)
0# 101°48′42″E 39°33′58″N 1365 203 120.0
1# 101°49′51″E 39°33′36″N 1334 200 118.5
2# 102°12′01″E 39°31′28″N 1299 142 28.3
3# 102°12′35″E 39°31′22″N 1308 135 35.0
4# 102°12′54″E 39°30′42″N 1326 96 34.4
5# 102°13′42″E 39°31′47″N 1304 140 41.4
5-1# 1307 90 -
5-2# 1310 60 -
6# 102°14′16″E 39°32′33″N 1264 135 34.5
7# 102°18′26″E 39°30′53″N 1331 168 33.2
8# 102°19′47″E 39°31′35″N 1302 260 83.5
Table 1 Basic information of sampling boreholes
Soil α (m-1) n l Ks θr (%) θs (%) dEF (m)
Sand* 8.60 2.14 0.5 2558 2.0 37.6 5.97
Fine 2.15 4.50 0.5 3285 3.4 42.0 <1.00
Table 2 Soil parameters adopted and corresponding results
Fig. 2 Grain size gradation of dune 0# (a), and inter-dune basins 5# and 7# (b). (c), field image; (d), slope of sand dunes in southern BJD.
Fig. 3 Formation composition of dune 0# and conceptual water migration in vadose zone, modified from Assouline and Kamai (2019). Blue inverted triangle and line indicate groundwater level. E, evaporation. Blue inverted triangle and line indicate groundwater level.
Fig. 4 Profile of soil moisture content in dunes and basins of the Badain Jaran Desert (BJD). (a), soil moisture content after rainfall, (b), soil moisture content without rainfall over a long time. Water content of dunes in the two red boxes are in the ranges of 3%-4%.
Fig. 5 Groundwater (GW) of inter-dune basins in the Badain Jaran Desert (BJD). (a), pumping water and elevation; (b), groundwater level and total dissolved solids (TDS); (c), temperature and depth; (d), relationship between δD values. In Figure 5c, boxes indicate the IQR (interquartile range, 75th to 25th of the data). The median value is shown as a line within the box. Outlier is shown as black circle. Whiskers extend to the most extreme value within 1.5×IQR. Isotope data of soil water in Figure 5d are referenced from Chen et al. (2012), local meteoric water line (LMWL) is referenced from Jin et al. (2018), and snowmelt data are referenced from Ren (1999). GMWL, global meteoric water line; LSS, Longshou Mountains; QLS, Qilian Mountains; EL, evaporation line.
Fig. 6 Structure of sand dune and inter-dune basin with a conceptual diagram of groundwater flow. Basins A and B are separated by granite uplift and receive independent groundwater recharge from crater under dunes.
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