Journal of Arid Land

Article Title

Water in the Mogao Grottoes, China: where it comes from and how it is driven


The Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes in China was designated as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1987 and is famous for its cultural relics. Water is the most active factor that harms the relics in the caves as it damages the grotto murals and painted sculptures. Thus, determining the water sources and driving forces of water movement is a key issue for protecting these cultural relics. These issues have troubled relics protectors for a long time. In this study, the authors chose a representative cave in the Mogao Grottoes and, by completely sealing the cave to make a closed system, measured the water vapor from the surrounding rock. This was accomplished by installing a condensation–dehumidification temperature–humidity control system for the collection of water vapor. The results show that there is continuous evaporation from the deep surrounding rock into the cave. The daily evaporation capacity is determined to be 1.02 g/(d•m2). The water sources and driving forces of water movement were further analyzed according to the character of the water evaporation and by monitoring the temperature and humidity of the surrounding rock. It was found that the water vapor in the cave derives from phreatic water. Moreover, the yearly fluctuation of temperature in the surrounding rock and geothermal forces are the basic powers responsible for driving phreatic evaporation. Under the action of the yearly temperature fluctuations, decomposition and combination of bound water acts as a “pump” that drives phreatic water migration and evaporation. When the temperature rises, bound water decomposes and evaporates; and when it falls, the rock absorbs moisture. This causes the phreatic water to move from deep regions to shallow ones. Determining the source and dynamic foundation of the water provides a firm scientific basis for protecting the valuable cultural relics in the caves.


the Silk Road; cultural heritage; surrounding rock; bound and phreatic water; thermodynamics

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