Biogeomorphology of nebkhas in the Mu Us dune field, north-central China: Chronological and morphological results

Shihan Li, Joseph A. Mason, Yihong Xu, Chi Xu, Guang Zheng, Jinchang Li, Hezi Yizhaq, Shaoming Pan, Huayu Lu, Zhiwei Xu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Nebkhas, also known as nebkha dunes or coppice dunes, are a unique biogeomorphological aeolian landform that is common in arid and semi-arid regions. They are often regarded as a signal of regional desertification and could be potential dust sources due to their relatively large content of fine sediments, but they also serve as “fertile islands” that enhance biodiversity at a micro-habitat. How the interactions between plant growth and aeolian sand deposition affect the formation and development of nebkhas has not been well documented, though. In this study, the chronology and morphological features of nebkhas in the Mu Us dune field, north-central China were studied using radionuclide (137Cs) dating and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) photogrammetric survey. The results show that the nebkhas are mainly distributed around lake basins and dry river valleys with relatively flat topography. Most nebkhas have heights around 0.5–1.5 m, and according to a new integrated age-height model, they mostly formed in the last fifty years. Widespread nebkha growth over that time is interpreted as a response to both desiccation of lake beds and river valleys and a pronounced decline in strong wind frequency. The regular rounded shape of the nebkhas in the study area may reflect the growth form of prostrate, extensively branched Nitraria tangutorum, the dominant formative shrub, and response to the low-energy wind environment. A nebkha's height and horizontal length increase synchronously in the early stage of the development, while the increase in horizontal length and projected area accelerates when the dunes become larger. Feedbacks involving both aeolian sand transport and shrub growth can explain a decline in growth rate with increasing height and an apparent height limit of about 4 m. This study also implies that nebkhas are important biogeomorphological features demonstrating how biotic and abiotic interactions can shape landforms and influence ecological functioning in arid and semi-arid environments.

Original languageEnglish
Article number107979
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2021


  • Aeolian sand accumulation
  • Biogeomorphological processes
  • Cs dating
  • Growth limit
  • Nebkhas
  • UAV photogrammetry

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes


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