WHERE’S THE WATER? SIGNS OF ANCIENT LAKES IN CHINA’S PARCHED DESERT

by Rosa Linand Gretchen Roecker
Oct 06, 2011

China, with one of the world fastest growing economies and skyrocketing energy use, still left a gaping hole in the global climate change map – until recently.

Aaron Putnam, a geoscientist from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, asked the obvious question: “Why don’t we complete the global compilation and go to Asia?”

Courtesy of Aaron Putnam/University of Maine A tree in the Tarim Basi
Courtesy of Aaron Putnam/University of Maine
A tree in the Tarim Basi

A year ago, Putnam flew to China to scope out the research situation. On a whim, he steered to the Tarim Basin, the vast oval desert nestled between the Tien Shan mountains to the north and the Kunlun range to the south. 

There, in the middle of a sea of sand, he found something unexpected: trees.

And not just any trees – poplars, which thrive in damp regions, near wetlands and rivers, and whose desiccated trunks were rising out of layered silt, a hallmark of lake-beds. 

Curious about when and how the parched land could have been home to water-loving trees, Putnam launched a scientific investigation. With the help of Hai Cheng and his colleagues at Xi’an Jiaotong University in central China’s Shaanxi province, what began as “a boondoggle to central Asia” in summer 2010 grew into a team treasure hunt a year later. 

In their journey through the Taklamakan Desert, Putnam and his sand-combing crew survived sweltering heat, navigated dunes and bureaucratic red tape, and unearthed signs of an ancient wet world.

Putnam added the data from China to research collected pole to pole with the teamwork of climate science greats Wallace Broecker and George Denton. Together, they are filling in a picture of how Earth works. The secrets unearthed in the Chinese desert help scientists understand how the planet responds to climate shifts and what could happen as emissions drive global temperatures up and push precipitation patterns to extremes.

Courtesy of Aaron Putnam/Univ.Maine Map of Tarim Basin.
Courtesy of Aaron Putnam/Univ.Maine
Map of Tarim Basin.


Medill School Of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications
1845 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208-2101 © 2015 Northwestern University