Thinking Citizen Blog — Great Rivers of the World VI — Huang He — the “Cradle of Chinese Civilization”

Thinking Citizen Blog — Wednesday is Climate Change, the Environment, and Sustainability Day

Today’s Topic: Great Rivers of the World VI — the Yellow River (Huang He) — the “Cradle of Chinese Civilization”

Millions have died during the 1,593 floods of the Yellow River between 595 BC and 1946 AD. The worst three were probably those of 1332, 1887, and 1931. The river is both “China’s Pride” and “China’s Sorrow.” It follows a torturous path, along which many of Ancient China’s capitals are located. Why so many floods? Read on. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

A TORTUROUS PATH: east, north, east, south, east, north

1. It extends 1180 miles west to east. But also 680 miles north to south — with three turns.

2. The course of the river is usually divided into three phases: a.) the “Upper Reaches” (from its source in the Bayan Har Mountains of the Tibetan plateau to the beginning of the turn south in Inner Mongolia). This is about 2157 miles in length.

b.) the “Middle Reaches” (also called the Ordos Loop) from the turn south to Zhengzhou (749 miles).This is the stretch that includes the Loess plateau which gives the river the yellow silt from which the river gets its name.

c.) the “Lower Reaches” from Zhengzhou to its mouth in the Bohai Sea — 488 miles. Here the river is “confined to a levee-lined course.” The silt from the “Middle Reaches” cause the river to rise up to 33 feet above ground level (at Kaifeng in Henan province).

WHY ALL THE DISASTROUS FLOODS? Loess dams and ice dams

1. “The cause of the floods is the large amount of fine-grained loss carried by the river from the Loess Plateau which is continuously deposited along the bottom of its channel. The sedimentation causes natural dams to slowly accumulate. These subaqueous dams were unpredictable and generally undetectable.”

2. “Eventually, the enormous amount of water has to find a new way to the sea, forcing it to take the path of least resistance. When this happens, it bursts out across the flat North China Plain, sometimes taking a new channel and inundating any farmland, cities or towns in its path.”

3. “The traditional Chinese response of building higher and higher levees along the banks sometimes also contributed to the severity of the floods: When flood water did break through the levees, it could no longer drain back into the river bed as it would after a normal flood as the river bed was sometimes now higher than the surrounding countryside.”

NB: “These changes could cause the river’s mouth to shift as much as 480 km (300 mi), sometimes reaching the ocean to the north of Shandong Peninsula and sometimes to the south. Another historical source of devastating floods is the collapse of upstream ice dams in Inner Mongolia with an accompanying sudden release of vast quantities of impounded water. There have been 11 such major floods in the past century, each causing tremendous loss of life and property. Nowadays, explosives dropped from aircraft are used to break the ice dams before they become dangerous.”

“MOTHER RIVER,” “CHINA’S PRIDE,” “CHINA’S SORROW” — and “when the river flows clear”

1. Often referred to as the “Cradle of Chinese Civilization,” the Yellow River is the source of the name of two provinces: “Hebei” (North of the River), and Henan (South of the River).

2. Hebei surrounds Beijing (a central government carve-out). Henan includes four of the eight Great Ancient Capitals — Luoyang, Anyang, Kaifeng, and Zhengzhou — and is often called the “birthplace of Chinese civilization.” Notable sites are the oracle bones of Yin and the Shaolin Temple.

3. The Yellow River’s largest tributary is the Wei River which passes through Xi’an, perhaps the greatest of Ancient Chinese Capitals and the starting point for the Silk Road.

NB: “When the river flows clear” is the Chinese equivalent of “when pigs fly.”

Yellow River


Please share the coolest thing you learned in the last week related to climate change or the environment. Or the coolest, most important thing you learned in your life related to climate change that the rest of us may have missed. Your favorite chart or table perhaps…

This is your chance to make some one’s day. Or to cement in your own mind something that you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than otherwise about something dear to your heart.



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