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China's Mountain Flattening Experiment is Not Going Well

Who knew that literally flattening mountains to build cities would turn out to be a bad idea?
June 4, 2014, 8:11pm
Image: Nature

To create more room for its 1.3 billion people, China has been, quite literally, moving mountains. Problem is, the world's largest mountain-flattening project has thus far been a disaster for the environment and highly questionable economically.

Spurred by glitzy Hollywood-style trailers, China has been able to move forward with the effort—in which the tops of mountains are cut off and hills are flattened to fill in valleys to create more land for cities—without so much as having a clue about what they're doing.

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The projects have been an unmitigated disaster, according to three environmental engineering researchers writing in this week's issue of Nature. It's not just the megacity of Lanzhou, where 700 mountains are actively being destroyed—the country is using the technique to expand five other cities as well.

Cities where mountain-flattening is happening. Image: Nature

"Earth moving on this scale without scientific support is folly," the researchers, led by Peiyue Li of China's Chang'an University, wrote. "The consequences of these unprecedented programs have not been thought through—environmentally, technically, or economically."

That's the key here: There's no real evidence that it's even going to work in all the places it's being tried. Take for instance, a project in Yan'an, where million-year-old deposits of soft silt are being used to create a new city: "Such soft soils can subside when wet, causing structural collapse."

That means that the $16 billion project "cannot be built on for at least another decade, when its ground base becomes stable," they write. Unfortunately, China didn't figure that out until after excavation had already started, because, across the board, these projects have been undertaken with nearly no scientific assessments.

"In Yan'an, the research started three months after excavations began. Lab tests that could have established the exact moisture content needed to harden [the] foundations were unavailable to guide the project," Li wrote. "Where high economic risks and low profitability are predicted, projects should not proceed even if they are technically feasible."

Shiyan, China in 2010 (left) and in 2012, after a flattening project. Image: Nature

So, China is potentially throwing away billions of dollars. Worse, the more we learn about these projects, the more clear it's becoming that they are absolutely terrible for the environment. Land creation projects have created landslides and flooding, altered rivers and streams courses, polluted waters, and have, in some cases, increased air particle matter by 50 percent.

"In Yan'an, the air is often brown with dust owing to construction teams working on windy days without dampening the soil," Li wrote.

In removing mountaintops to mine coal, the United States has done similarly damaging things to the environment. Now, China is learning, unshockingly, that moving mountains isn't an easy or wise task.