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Chinese and Mongolian saline lakes: a limnological overview

Abstract

More than half of China's lakes are saline (viz. have salinities > 3 g L−1). Most salt lakes are in northwestern China (Tibet, Qinghai, Sinkiang, Inner Mongolia). Most Mongolian salt lakes are in the west of that country. Tectonic movements have been of the greatest importance in lake origins, but aeolian activity and deflation have also played a role. Many salt lakes in Qinghai-Tibet lie at altitudes > 4 000 m.a.s.l.; Aiding Hu (Sinkiang) lies at −154 m.a.s.l. Again, many lakes are large in area and deep. Small, shallow lakes are also common. Dimictic thermal patterns prevail in deep lakes, polymictic patterns in shallow ones. The highest salinity recorded is 555 g L−1. The salinity of Qinghai Lake, the largest Chinese salt lake, is 14 g L−1, but mean lake salinity on the northern Tibetan plateau is about an order of magnitude greater. Lop Nor has a salinity of ∼ 5 g L−1. Dominant ions are Na and Cl; Mg, Ca, SO4 and HCO3 + CO3 are important in certain lakes. Most major ions originate by weathering and leaching from rocks. pH values are generally high (often > 9.0).

There are no bird or fish species confined to salt lakes, though many are associated with lakes of low or moderate salinity. Artemia occurs widely inland and in coastal salt pans, but is the only major macroinvertebrate of highly saline lakes. In lakes of only low to moderate salinity, invertebrate communities comprise widespread halotolerant freshwater forms and halophiles, some regionally endemic. Submerged and emergent macrophytes occur in lakes of low salinity, but phytoplankton species are more halotolerant. Ctenocladus circinatus, a green alga, is known from a Tibetan salt lake with a salinity of 200 g L−1.

There is a dearth of basic limnological information on Chinese and Mongolian salt lakes. More work in particular is needed on a variety of geographically widespread lakes to (a) document seasonal physico-chemical events, and (b) compile comprehensive biological inventories of taxa present. Chinese salt lakes are significant sites for palaeoclimatic research, for conservation purposes, and for the resolution of several important biological questions (especially of an ecological and biogeographical sort). They also have important economic values. Unfortunately, the natural existence of many appears to be threatened by decreased inflows, largely the result of human impact on catchments.

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Williams, W.D. Chinese and Mongolian saline lakes: a limnological overview. Hydrobiologia 210, 39–66 (1991). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00014322

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Key words

  • saline lakes
  • China
  • Mongolia
  • limnology