China Attempts to Level 700 Mountains


Officials in China have decided that up to 700 mountains are impeding their progress, and in an attempt to eradicate that impediment, they have decided to level the mountains and fill in valleys. A group of researchers at Chang’an University, in the Shaanxi Province, have published a warning to developers that without giving full consideration to the possible consequences, they could be making a disastrous mistake.

The past ten years has seen a tremendous boom in construction in China. To make space for all the new buildings, developers are creating land that is leveled and flattened by bulldozing mountaintops and filling in the neighboring valleys. The fact that these new landscapes will be susceptible to flooding, greater erosion and pollutants that will easily spread into water tables and ecosystems seems to have escaped the planners. Apparently, part of the negative outcome includes suffering farmlands as well as the native wildlife, which seems to bring little concern.

One project, by which the researchers are particularly disturbed, is in their own province. Approximately 30 square miles of Yan’an is now flattened land, yet it will not serve well as foundations for homes. The process of flattening is disturbing many layers of loess, silt that is wind-blown, which has been sitting for over a million years. Heavy rains could potentially cause a devastating collapse. Urban construction has never before been built upon such unstable ground.

About 20 percent of the Chinese population lives in the mountains. Some of those cities are bursting at the seams. Those who support the leveling of mountains argue that the plan creates much needed breathing room. They are also saying that any costs due to the inevitable increase in pollution will be outweighed by the outpouring of economic opportunities produced by the plan.

There is no apparent guarantee of economic growth; however, there does seem to be some strong evidence that increases in pollution will be an issue. The construction has enveloped the flattened areas within substantial clouds of hazardous sediment and dust. In the university’s paper, published this week in Nature, the researchers tell an ancient tale that also serves as a fable. The story is about an old man who proves to a skeptical neighbor that he can, one stone at a time, remove two view-disrupting mountains. The old man succeeds with the assistance of the gods. The tale is often used as an example of how perseverance pays off. The moral of the fable, however, is “earth-moving on this scale without scientific support is folly.”

China is certainly not the only nation that brings destruction upon its mountains. In the United States, coal mining by mountaintop removal has been a controversial practice for decades. Even though the two nations are about the same size, the scale of China’s project far overshadows anything done in the U.S.

Not only the scale of the project is immense, with 700 targeted mountains, but the sheer lack of planning is alarming. As the researchers from Chang’an University point out, the removal of mountains is dangerous and complicated, even for skilled people who have a clue as to what exactly they are doing. Dust storms, erosion and landslides have already occurred due to this poorly planned activity. There are polluted or blocked off rivers laying in the project’s wake. Numerous farmlands, forests and habitats for wildlife have been completely lost.

The authors of the paper are pleading with the backers of the projects to conduct reviews of the possible economic, environmental and geological impacts. They suggest that officials of the cities involved ought to collaborate with an international team of researchers to create a real game plan for China’s attempts to level 700 mountains.

By Stacy Lamy


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