TA1 Facility 7 – Qaidam Basin (China)
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TA1 Facility 7 – Qaidam Basin (China)

Average visit: 2 weeks
Due to the remote location of the Qaidam Basin and the necessity to obtain official permission to access it by the Chinese government, a preparation phase of 6 months will need to be taken into account before the visit.

Mars-analogue lacustrine environment in the north of the Tibetan Plateau

The Qaidam Basin lies in the north of the Tibetan Plateau covering a total area of 120,000 km2. It is the highest desert on Earth and the largest sedimentary basin in the Tibetan Plateau. Development of the high elevation over the last 20 million years eventually resulted in a hyper-arid climate with a low-mean annual temperatures (as low as 1.9oC) and tremendous diurnal temperature fluctuations (up to 64oC. The Qaidam Basin has many ancient lakes, sedimentary deposits and rich geomorphological features that provide an excellent analogue environment of Mars, including the following aspects:

  • The formation of the Qaidam Basin dates back to the Jurassic, when most of the Tibet Plateau was a giant lake that was a consequence of two major subduction systems activated by the collision of the Indian Plate. An early lake was formed in the Paleocene in the northern part of the plateau and a later system formed in the south. The Qaidam Basin has been an inland drainage basin at least since Oligocene. Due to the highly irregular uplift and deformation in the northwest during the Miocene and Pleistocene, the basin was expanded in a northwest-southeast direction. Continuous and intense collision-compression tectonic activity eventually  split the giant lake into smaller ones.
  • The entire base of the Qaidam Basin is covered by hundreds of metres of evaporative salt crust, mainly sulfate deposits rich in minerals such as gypsum and rock salt. The abundance of sulfate in the region is much higher than that of carbonate. Extreme drought conditions in the area make it difficult for vegetation to survive, leaving an evaporative crust over most of the surface. The different dry lakes are evidence of different stages of evolution in a region and can help assess the environmental impact of water loss on the plateau.
  • The Qaidam Basin is characterised by low-mean annual temperatures (between 1.9 and 12.6 degree C), 50% of the sea level air pressure, 67% of the Sun’s radiation exposure, 30% relative humidity, very low (< 14 mm) annual average precipitation, and extremely high (3000-3200 mm) average annual evaporation capacity. The severe environments in the area provide an excellent opportunity to study biological features in extreme environments.
  • The widely distributed aeolian landforms suggest that wind, rather than water, is the dominant factor for sand transport and erosion. There are widely distributed comparable aeolian landforms on Mars, and the study of the formation process of aeolian landforms in the Qaidam Basin may aid understanding of Martian geomorphic inversion. The Qaidam Basin has some other geomorphological types similar to the surface of Mars, including polygonal terrains, hollows and pits, cyclic vertical accretion, inverted ridges, recurring slope lineations, gullies etc.


Dr Yang Liu, National Space Science Center, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Email: yangliu<at>nssc.ac.cn

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