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What is the Gobi Desert?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Gobi Desert is a large desert region which stretches through China and parts of Mongolia. It is also sometimes called the Gov' or Govi. It has occupied an important cultural and economic role in both of these nations for thousands of years, and it is also a popular tourist destination. Like other areas of desertification around the world, this desert is characterized by harsh conditions and temperature extremes which can push most living organisms to their limits. Despite this, nomadic herders call this region home, and there are human outposts in many far flung regions of the Gobi.

Although most people associate sand with deserts, the Gobi is not actually very sandy. Much of it consists of rock outcrops, gravel, and dirt, with scattered shrubs in some regions, especially those near the Kerulen River, which provides some water to parts of the Gobi Desert. Some regions do have large sandy dunes, and these often draw tourists and visitors, due to their isolation and natural beauty.

The total area of the Gobi Desert is around 500,000 square miles (1,295,000 kilometers), making it one of the largest desert regions in the world, after the Sahara. The Eastern region of the desert has been used by nomadic herders for thousands of years, and some ecologists have grown concerned about the ecological stability of this region due to overgrazing and exploitation. Another region, the Bayanhongor, has a rich archaeological record of dinosaur fossils, along with a small population of rugged animals and plants.

One of the most important plants in the Gobi Desert is saxaul, a woody shrub which provides food, fuel, and shelter. Gazelles, polecats, plovers, wolves, camels, wild asses, bears, musk oxen, and Przewalski's horses can also be found in some regions of the Gobi. Many of these species are unique to the desert, as is the case with the Gobi Bear, which is the only known desert dwelling bear species in the world. The Gobi is also visited by snow leopards and other animals which live along its fringes.

Conditions in the Gobi Desert can be very harsh. It tends to be very dry, with rain coming in brief and sometimes violent bursts. Because much of the desert is in the north, it is also a very cold desert, with ice and snow covering large parts of it in the winter. The temperatures can get extreme, sometimes fluctuating wildly between day and night.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon168881 — On Apr 19, 2011

I was wondering if anyone knew why the gobi desert is a cold desert. I have looked on many websites and they are all giving me different reasons why. Can anybody help me answer this question? --puzzled

By anon120629 — On Oct 21, 2010

great article! it really helped me with my Gobi Desert powerpoint presentation i had to do for ecology. thank you

By anon97174 — On Jul 18, 2010

is the gobi 5000 feet above sea level? i read somewhere that it is.

By Alchemy — On Jun 14, 2010

@ Glasshouse - You are right that the encroaching sands of the Gobi are a crisis. The Gobi desert is expanding at a rate of about 1000 square miles every year. Some of this desertification can be attributed to natural causes, but most of the encroaching sands are brought on by overgrazing, deforestation, and the mismanagement of the marginal lands during droughts. These effects are amplified by wind and water erosion; causing the Gobi to literally envelop Beijing and other Chinese cities.

For China to avert disaster, they must create a sustainability plan that creates short-term and long-term solutions to the problem. The Chinese government has created an aforestation plan that will literally build a 2,800 mile long green wall around the southern border of the Gobi. The plan looks to hire farmers, who have become victims of the encroaching sands, to plant trees on their land as well as aerial seeding techniques to fence in the Gobi. However, this plan is probably not enough to reverse the desertification of the marginal lands surrounding the Gobi

An appropriate plan would have to accomplish four things:

1) Study the unique causes of desertification region by region.

2) Implement programs to educate farmers about sustainable land use.

3) Create targeted plans to combat Gobi desertification region by region.

4) Establish protected areas in areas most prone to desertification.

If these steps were taken, then perhaps desertification could be slowed in the short-term and reversed in the long-term.

By Glasshouse — On Jun 14, 2010

The article said the Gobi is not very sandy, but I went to Beijing a few years ago and witnessed the dust storms from the Gobi first hand. In China they call it the yellow dragon or the fifth season. The storms were insane. Walls of sand would move in that would literally block out the sun and coat everything in the city with dust. These storms, when combined with Beijing’s pollution, would make the air quality very bad. I heard the Chinese government was even trying to figure out ways to mitigate the problem before the Olympics arrived. How they were planning on stopping these storms beats me, but I could see the air quality being a big problem for the athletes. I wonder why Beijing was planned so close to the Gobi, or if the Gobi is just moving closer to Beijing. I heard that the dust storms are getting worse every year. Next time I travel to Beijing I will be sure to skip the windy times of year. I wonder how China is going to solve this potential crisis.

By bookworm — On Sep 28, 2008

There seem to be evidence of dinosaurs and some other ancient life in a part of Gobi desert known as Brown Hills. The evidence points to extinction of these creatures by sudden and violent wet sand slides.

Because some of the fossils were so well preserved, it points to the fact that these sand slides were quick and sudden. There was no decomposition, or deterioration due to elements.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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