Critical transitions in Chinese dunes during the past 12,000 years

Zhiwei Xu*, Joseph A. Mason, Chi Xu, Shuangwen Yi, Sebastian Bathiany, Hezi Yizhaq, Yali Zhou, Jun Cheng, Milena Holmgren, Huayu Lu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

62 Citations (Scopus)


Dune systems can have alternative stable states that coexist under certain environmental conditions: a vegetated, stabilized state and a bare active state. This behavior implies the possibility of abrupt transitions from one state to another in response to gradual environmental change. Here, we synthesize stratigraphic records covering 12,000 years of dynamics of this system at 144 localities across three dune fields in northern China. We find side-by-side coexistence of active and stabilized states, and occasional sharp shifts in time between those contrasting states. Those shifts occur asynchronously despite the fact that the entire landscape has been subject to the same gradual changes in monsoon rainfall and other conditions. At larger scale, the spatial heterogeneity in dune dynamics averages out to produce relatively smooth change. However, our results do show different paths of recovery and collapse of vegetation at system-wide scales, implying that hysteretic behavior occurs in spatially extended systems.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbereaay8020
JournalScience Advances
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2020


Dive into the research topics of 'Critical transitions in Chinese dunes during the past 12,000 years'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this