The Gobi desert is a vast stretch of desert and semi-desert region in Central Asia, with its expanse covering large portions of southern Mongolia and north and northwestern China. The Gobi is bounded by the grassland and steppes of Mongolia and the Altai Ranges to the north, the Da Hinggan Range and North China Plain to the east and northeast, respectively, the Bei Mountains and the Huang He Valley to the south, the Hexi Corridor and Tibetan Plateau to the southwest, and another arid expanse, the Taklamakan Desert, to the west. The Gobi covers an estimated area of 500,000 square miles, and consists of the Gaxun, Junggar, and Trans-Atlai Gobi in the west, the Alxa Plateau in the south, and the Mongolian Gobi in the central and eastern portions.
In the prehistoric period, the Gobi Desert region supported a large variety of life forms, which is evident from the paleontological findings sourced from the region. The remains of dinosaurs from the Mesozoic Era have been discovered in Central Gobi, while fossils of ancient mammals belonging to the Cenozoic Era have also been uncovered in this region. The Gobi Desert also provides evidence of the existence of the ancestors of Homo sapien humans belonging to the Paleolithic and Neolithic time periods. In the later stages, after the initial development of human civilizations, the Gobi became part of the great Mongol Empire, and the ancient Silk Route even came to traverse parts of the Gobi Desert. The latter allowed international traders and travelers to cross the desert to reach their destinations across the arid landscapes.
Currently, the Gobi Desert region supports a relatively small population for its mass size, the density of which is less than 3 persons per square kilometer. The occupation of the people here mostly involves either nomadic cattle raising or the cultivation of agricultural crops well-suited for semi-arid environs. Salt, petroleum, coal, copper, and other mineral ores are also commercially extracted in the region. The Gobi Desert is crisscrossed by numerous railroads and caravan tracks, the most significant being the rail line from south-central Inner Mongolia to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia. Highways have also been constructed along the Gob, connecting commercially important places in China and Mongolia. Besides the human population, the Gobi also supports a variety of plant and animal populations that are unique to its desert habitats.
The climate of the Gobi Desert is typically continental and dry, with cold, severe winters and relatively warm summers. Annual precipitation varies between less than 50 millimeters in the west to more than 200 millimeters in the northeast. Drainage of the Gobi water is primarily carried out underground, as rivers on the surface, though they do usually flow in the summer months, generally have little constant flow. The soil of the Gobi Desert is comprised of either carbonaceous, gypseous, or coarse gravel types, with sandy salt marshes and takyrs (depressed flats crusted over with dried up cyanobacteria deposited after sporadic heavy rains) being seen in various places throughout. The Gobi Desert is in most places characterized by the sparse presence of vegetation, with small, bush-like shrubs like the Echinochloa, yellow-wood bean carper, and the niter bush growing on the plateau regions and the plains beneath the mountains. Such halophilic plants as the potato bush, Siberian niter bush, and tamarisk grow in the salt marshes. The sands of the Gobi allow sparse perennials, such as saxaul, and annuals, such as the Gobi kumarchik, to grow as well. The vegetation is richer in the semi-desert tracts, which is comprised there by such herbaceous species as those in the wormwood groups of plants. In terms of fauna, the Gobi Desert is inhabited by such desert fauna as wild camels, black tailed gazelles, snow leopards, Gobi bears, Gobi wolfs, the meu, the kulan, golden eagles, jerboas, and others.
Threats and Disputes
The Gobi Desert ecosystem is quite vulnerable to the effects of large scale grazing by livestock, especially in the eastern regions that receive heavier rainfall, and thus water erosion. In the Mongolian portions especially, substantial areas of Gobi grasslands have been degraded by livestock grazing. There are also large mineral deposits of coal and gold in the Gobi Desert area which lead to the exploitation of the desert habitat by commercial scale mining corporations intent on extracting the minerals buried underneath. Currently, global warming and climate change are leading to the expansion of this desert into what was once grassland at an alarming rate. The desertification is primarily higher in the southern edge of the Gobi, where 3,600 square kilometers of former grasslands have already been lost to the desert. Besides global warming, overgrazing and deforestation are also the prime factors responsible for this desertification. This has led to the loss of livelihood of a large number of herders and cultivators living on the fringes of the Gobi Desert. Environmental pollution has also been hastened in the Gobi by industrialization in the recent years. For example, fertilizer manufacturing in the region in and around Hohhot, China has led to the phosphate contamination of the Gobi's groundwater systems in some of the proximate areas. Arsenic has also been released into the groundwater of the Gobi in certain areas, while dangerously high radiation levels have been detected in the western Gobi. This area hosts China’s chief nuclear weapon test site near Lop Nur, which is likely the culprit behind this radiation.