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Onset of Asian desertification by 22 Myr ago inferred from loess deposits in China


The initial desertification in the Asian interior is thought to be one of the most prominent climate changes in the Northern Hemisphere during the Cenozoic era1,2,3,4. But the dating of this transition is uncertain, partly because desert sediments are usually scattered, discontinuous and difficult to date. Here we report nearly continuous aeolian deposits covering the interval from 22 to 6.2 million years ago, on the basis of palaeomagnetic measurements and fossil evidence. A total of 231 visually definable aeolian layers occur as brownish loesses interbedded with reddish soils. This new evidence indicates that large source areas of aeolian dust and energetic winter monsoon winds to transport the material must have existed in the interior of Asia by the early Miocene epoch, at least 14 million years earlier than previously thought3,5. Regional tectonic changes and ongoing global cooling are probable causes of these changes in aridity and circulation in Asia.

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Figure 1
Figure 2: Morphological, geochemical and sedimentological properties of the Qinan aeolian deposits.
Figure 3: Magnetostratigraphy and magnetic susceptibility of the Qinan aeolian sequences and late Cenozoic dust accumulation rate in northern China.


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We thank W. Wu, Z. Qiu, S. Zheng and Z. Qiu for the identification of micromammalian fossils, and Z.S. An, J. Guiot and R. Potts for discussions. This work is supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the National Project for Basic Research on Tibetan Plateau, Chuangxin and Bairen Programs of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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Guo, Z., Ruddiman, W., Hao, Q. et al. Onset of Asian desertification by 22 Myr ago inferred from loess deposits in China. Nature 416, 159–163 (2002).

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