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Journal of Arid Land  2023, Vol. 15 Issue (7): 812-826    DOI: 10.1007/s40333-023-0061-0
Research article     
Remote sensing monitoring of the recent rapid increase in cultivation activities and its effects on desertification in the Mu Us Desert, China
ZHAO Hongyan1,2,3, YAN Changzhen1,3,*(), LI Sen1,3, WANG Yahui1,2,3
1Key Laboratory of Desert and Desertification, Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lanzhou 730000, China
2University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
3National Earth System Science Data Center, Beijing 100020, China
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The recent ecological improvement in the Mu Us Desert of China, largely attributed to large-scale afforestation projects, has created new opportunities for cultivation activities. However, the subsequent rapid increase in reclamation on desertification land and its impact on desertification have raised concerns. In this study, we first extracted data on cultivated land and desertification land in 1975, 1990, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, and 2020 through the human-computer interaction visual interpretation method. By overlaying the cultivated land dynamics and desertification land, we subsequently explored the effect of cultivation activities on desertification in the Mu Us Desert during the six periods from 1975 to 2020 (1975-1990, 1990-2000, 2000-2005, 2005-2010, 2010-2015, and 2015-2020). The results showed that cultivated land in the Mu Us Desert showed a fluctuating and increasing trend from 3769.26 km2 in 1975 to 4865.73 km2 in 2020, with 2010 as the turning point for the recent rapid increase. The main contributors included the large and regular patches distributed in Yuyang District and Shenmu of Shaanxi Province, and relatively smaller patches concentrated in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The increased cultivated land from the reclamation on desertification land was dominated by moderate and severe desertification lands, and the decreased cultivated land that was transferred into desertification land as abandoned cultivated land was dominated by slight and moderate desertification lands. The effect of cultivation activities on desertification reversal (average area proportion of 10.61% for reversed desertification land) was greater than that of the development of desertification (average area proportion of 5.82% for developed desertification land). Nevertheless, compared to reversed desertification land, both the significant increase of developed desertification land during the periods of 2000-2005 and 2005-2010 and the insignificant decrease during the periods of 2005-2010, 2010-2015, and 2015-2020 implied a potential remobilization risk. Therefore, this study provides a significant theoretical reference for the formulation of ecological restoration projects and regional macroeconomic development policies by considering the influence of cultivation activities, to ensure the overall environmental stability and sustainability in desertification land where reclamation and abandonment activities have taken place.

Key wordscultivation activities      desertification land      desertification reversal and development      reclamation      spatial overlay analysis      Mu Us Desert     
Received: 30 November 2022      Published: 31 July 2023
Corresponding Authors: *YAN Changzhen (E-mail:
Cite this article:

ZHAO Hongyan, YAN Changzhen, LI Sen, WANG Yahui. Remote sensing monitoring of the recent rapid increase in cultivation activities and its effects on desertification in the Mu Us Desert, China. Journal of Arid Land, 2023, 15(7): 812-826.

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Fig. 1 Spatial distribution of land cover types (a) and different desertification land types (b) in the Mu Us Desert in 2020. The pie chart shows the area proportions of desertification lands and non-desertification land in the Mu Us Desert in 2020.
Desertification land types Percentage of mobile sand area (%) FVC (%) Surface landscape characteristics
Slight <5 >60 Only sporadic mobile dunes are distributed and most areas are still similar to the original landscape.
Moderate 5-25 30-60 This type mainly includes the sheet mobile dunes, coppice dunes, and wind erosion area.
Severe 25-50 10-30 Mobile dunes are distributed in a relatively large area with dense coppice dunes and strong wind.
Serious >50 <10 Mobile dunes are densely distributed in the whole region, with only annual sandy plants.
Table 1 Criteria for the classification of desertification land
Fig. 2 Spatial overlay analysis between desertification land and the cultivated land dynamics (the increased cultivated land and the decreased cultivated land) during the six periods from 1975 to 2020
Dynamic types of desertification land Transformation types of desertification land
Reversed desertification land Lighter degree of desertification land Serious desertification land was transferred to severe, moderate, and slight desertification lands.
Severe desertification land was transferred to moderate and slight desertification lands.
Moderate desertification land was transferred to slight desertification land.
Disappeared desertification land Any of the four desertification land types were transferred to non-desertification land.
Developed desertification land Severer degree of desertification land Slight desertification land was transferred to moderate, severe, and serious desertification lands.
Moderate desertification land was transferred to severe and serious desertification lands.
Severe desertification land was transferred to serious desertification land.
Appeared desertification land Non-desertification land was transferred to any of the four desertification land types.
Table 2 Classification system of the dynamics of desertification land
Fig. 3 Spatial distribution of cultivated land in the Mu Us Desert in 2020 (a) and its dynamics during the six periods of 1975-1990 (b), 1990-2000 (c), 2000-2005 (d), 2005-2010 (e), 2010-2015 (f), and 2015-2020 (g)
Year Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Shaanxi Province Total area (km2)
Area (km2) Proportion (%) Area (km2) Proportion (%) Area (km2) Proportion (%)
1975 165.45 4.39 1577.41 41.85 2026.40 53.76 3769.26
1990 174.04 4.60 1580.07 41.80 2026.08 53.60 3780.20
2000 182.30 4.77 1586.75 41.51 2053.62 53.72 3822.67
2005 178.57 4.71 1585.26 41.83 2025.93 53.46 3789.76
2010 179.12 4.75 1587.30 42.13 2000.80 53.11 3767.23
2015 182.13 3.99 2072.44 45.39 2311.24 50.62 4565.80
2020 171.83 3.53 2253.25 46.31 2440.66 50.16 4865.73
Table 3 Dynamics of cultivated land in the Mu Us Desert from 1975 to 2020
Fig. 4 Spatial distribution of the increased cultivated land in the Mu Us Desert from 2010 to 2020 (a) and false color images displaying the local variation of cultivated land in Yuyang District from 2010 (b) to 2020 (c), as well as pictures showing the verification site (d1-d3). (d1), picture showing the southwest of verification site in 2020; (d2), picture showing the northwest of verification site in 2020; (d3), picture showing the northeast of verification site in 2020. False color images of Figure 4b and c are from Landsat TM and Landsat OLI, respectively.
Fig. 5 Spatial distribution of the increased cultivated land from the reclamation on desertification land in the Mu Us Desert during the six periods from 1975 to 2020. (a), 1975-1990; (b), 1990-2000; (c), 2000-2005; (d), 2005-2010; (e), 2010-2015; (f), 2015-2020. The pie charts show the area and area proportion of each desertification land type in the increased cultivated land in the corresponding period.
Fig. 6 Spatial distribution of the decreased cultivated land that was transferred into desertification land as abandoned cultivated land in the Mu Us Desert during the six periods from 1975 to 2020. (a), 1975-1990; (b), 1990-2000; (c), 2000-2005; (d), 2005-2010; (e), 2010-2015; (f), 2015-2020. The pie charts show the area and area proportion of each desertification land type in the decreased cultivated land in the corresponding period.
Fig. 7 Spatial distribution of reversed and developed desertification lands in the total area of the changed cultivated land (reclamation on desertification land and desertification of abandoned cultivated land) during the six periods from 1975 to 2020. (a), 1975-1990; (b), 1990-2000; (c), 2000-2005; (d), 2005-2010; (e), 2010-2015; (f), 2015-2020. The pie charts show the area proportion of reversed and developed desertification lands as well as non-desertification land in the corresponding period.
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