China Is Tearing Down Mountains to Build Cities

Land creation projects are proceeding apace without scientific research to back them up

Yan'an, China is flattening some of the mountains surrounding the city, seen here in a photo from 2012 Imaginechina/Corbis

China is moving mountains. Literally. As their populations boom, several cities in mountainous regions are busy leveling their mountaintops in order to make more room for development. Scientists from Chang'an University wrote about the process in Nature this week.

From the paper

This is reminiscent of an ancient Chinese fable, 'The Foolish Old Man who Removed the Mountains'. In the tale, a 90-year-old man convinces his disbelieving neighbour that he can dig away, stone by stone, two mountains that block the way from his house. Because he succeeds (albeit with the help of deities) the fable is often cited — including by Mao Zedong — to illustrate the power of perseverance. But in our view, China should heed the story's title: earth-moving on this scale without scientific support is folly.

Here in the United States, mountains are also being moved, to get at coal seams deep underground. Mountaintop removal mining is still a highly controversial practice, adamantly opposed by environmental groups. But even those projects pale in comparison to the sheer size of what's going on in China. 

And that’s what has the authors of the Nature paper worried. Moving mountains is a complicated and dangerous business, even when people know what they’re doing. But smoothing out the landscape without having a game plan first? That’s a whole other story.

Already, these projects have caused erosion, landslides and dust storms. Rivers have been entirely blocked or polluted, and forests, farmland and wildlife habitats have been lost. And that’s just the leveling part of this equation. A whole new set of problems emerges once building on the new land starts. In Yan’an, much of the soil being excavated from the mountains to fill in the valley is loess, a fine silty soil that doesn’t hold up well when wet. Building on that? Not the best choice.  

The Nature article doesn’t actually call for the cities to stop doing what they’re doing, but it does make an urgent plea for more research. The authors want environmental, geological and economic reviews of the projects currently underway and for cities to collaborate with researchers around the world on a game plan for this massive amount of destruction.

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