Winds of Change

Screen capture from NASA WorldWind software of...
Altyn Tagh range at top - click for detail. Image via Wikipedia

The transport of sediment by wind action is generally visualised as sand dunes of all kind of shapes. Yet shifting sand particles arm strong wind in the manner of a sand blaster so that it can act as an agent of erosion to form peculiar landforms known as yardangs, which often parallel the prevailing wind as linear ridges. Yardangs very rarely form from crystalline rocks, but poorly cemented sedimentary rocks are particularly prone to wind erosion. In a few areas that are very arid it is the dominant sculpting process. One such area is the Qaidam Basin (<50 mm of rain per year) at the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The basin is flanked to the north by the Altyn Tagh mountains, and major passes in that range funnel powerful winds across the basin floor. The yardangs of Qaidam are enormous, reaching up to 50 m high and show clearly on satellite images and often camouflage the trend of bedding in the sedimentary rocks from which they are carved. Formerly thought to be a basin in which sediment was accumulating and being actively folded by tectonic forces related to the India-Asia collision zone, recent work reveals several very surprising aspects of local wind action (Kapp, P. et al. 2011. Wind erosion in the Qaidam basin, central Asia: implications for tectonics, palaeoclimate, and the source of the Loess Plateau. GSA Today, v. 21 (April/May 2011) p. 4-10). Since the Late Pliocene the rate of wind erosion has reached as much as 1 mm per year, so that it is a source of sediment not a repository, to the extent that at least a third of the basin is occupied by exposed folded sediments that wind erosion has exhumed. Yet this is not an area noted for large dust storms.

五彩城 Yardangs
Yardangs in Quaidam. Image by Joe Zhou via Flickr

The folded sediments are early Pleistocene lacustrine silts and fine sands, which sand blasting has easily sculpted, but many of the yardangs are encrusted with a crust of salt. Indeed several generations of such crusts mark wind-eroded surfaces of different relative ages. It seems that the erosion has occurred in episodes, most likely during cold-dry glacial and stadial periods when the northern jet stream probably shifted south from its present local position around 48°N to the latitude of Qaidam (around 40°N) when the Altyn Tagh’s funnelling effect would have been maximised by prevailing north westerly winds that parallels the yardangs. Such episodes can be shown to have eroded hundreds to thousands of metres of the slowly deforming sediments since about 2.8 Ma. It was at that time that folding began in earnest, and quite possibly the unloading effect of the wind erosion may have assisted the deformation. Where did such vast volumes of sediment end up? Downwind to the south east are the famous loess deposits in the headwaters of the Huang He (Yellow River), whose transport of eroded loess accounts for the great fertility of much of China’s soils and thereby its great carrying capacity for human population. Interestingly, the loess deposits show intricate alternations that match the ups and downs of climate through the late Pleistocene. The link with the Qaidam yardang fields seems convincing

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