The Tree in the Desert

We’ve had some interesting discussion of the following picture of a tree in the desert which was the closing slide in a presentation by Shao et al here entitled “A Dendroclimatic Study of Qilian Juniper in the northeast Qinghai-Xizang (Tibet) Plateau”.

Here is the picture in question.

Caption: Closing slide from Shao et al presentation.

Reader twq, who says that he has been to the Dulan region many times, said that “In dulan region, there is no desert definitely”.

He added:

My colleagues have consulted Prof. Shao, and She said the tree in the Desert that Steve cited is no existant at all and it is just a picture. I guess that someone draw the tree in the desert, and not real

A CA reader emailed Dr Shao requesting information on the provenance of the picture, once its association with Qilianshan juniper was questioned. Dr Shao replied to the CA reader:

The last picture on my talk is not a Qilian Juniper. A friend of my put that picture for me and I don’t know where it was taken exactly.

I emailed Dr Shao requesting further details. Dr Shao replied that her friend couldn’t remember where the picture came from. In my experience with geological reports, geologists are careful to identify the locations of each photograph and this is part of scientific documentation. To the extent that dendroclimatologists use photographs from undocumented locations, this is a practice that, in my opinion, should be discouraged.

There has also been some discussion of whether the picture used by Dr Shao had been doctored in some way. A CA reader, who is familiar with image processing, examined the picture in detail and concluded:

At first I quickly passed it off as a pasteover job (see below for some of the things I saw.) Now I think it likely it’s just a low quality photo, saved for the web by “save at low resolution” software that managed to make the tree look very different due to its different level of detail.

So I think that we can safely conclude that twq’s surmise that someone had “drawn” the picture is incorrect and that it is a real picture, just not a picture of Dulan junipers.

Let’s consider the related question: is it likely to be a tree from western China taken somewhere between Xining and Dunhuang? I think that this is very probable, notwithstanding Dr Shao’s inability to identify the location of the photograph. First, as demonstrated by the satellite photograph of the area posted up by Willis here, much of the area around Dulan is desert (Dulan and nearby Xiangride are both described as oases). While the Dulan junipers sampled for the dendro studies came from rocky areas, the flats beneath these rocky areas definitely appear to be desert. Travellers have described the trip from Qinghai Lake to Delingha as traveling over desert.

Secondly and perhaps most importantly, there are other “tree in the desert” pictures from the area between Xining and Dunhuang (especially around Dunhuang.)

Here is a picture of an oasis near Dunhuang described here as follows:

Some say it reminds them of the eye of a beautiful woman, lucid, beautiful and amorous. Some say it looks like the mysterious, gentle and seductive lips of a pretty woman, or a slice of lush, sweet and crystal cantaloupe.



Here’s another picture of a “tree in the desert” from near Dunhuang, this one not doing as well as the picture in the Shao et al presentation, but it looks like the same kind of tree.

Here’s a picture from Unesco from the Gobi Desert, which is adjacent to this area.

Here’s a picture of the Qaidam Basin near Dulan.

On balance, given the use of the “tree in the desert” iconography by other travelers in the area, it seems highly likely that Dr Shao adopted this iconography as well. It is inconceivable to me that Dr Shao would include a picture from, say, Namibia, in her presentation.

The best approach to the problem is probably to look once more at the satellite photo that Willis located and discussed here . I’m going to discuss this image a little more in connection with location maps in the dendro articles. For now, all parties can surely agree that there is a great deal of extremely dry ground in the Dulan area, which is consistent with any travel account. The sampling areas for Dulan junipers are all in very brown-looking south-facing mountains to the west of Qinghai Lake, which is prominent in the satellite photo.


  1. Martin Coady
    Posted Apr 14, 2007 at 11:48 AM | Permalink

    Sorry to sound like a “moon landings were faked” conspiracy theorist, but a tree, in a desert, with no shadow – or at least an inappropriately small one. Its a composite image!

  2. David Smith
    Posted Apr 14, 2007 at 12:56 PM | Permalink

    It looks to me like a tree, plus several smaller shrubs (behind the tree), plus other low vegetation and some rocks, residing in two swayles.

    There is a rise of sand between the photographer and the tree, which hides part of the swayles and gives the illusion of a tree rising from nothing.

  3. Joe Ellebracht
    Posted Apr 14, 2007 at 1:14 PM | Permalink

    It seems to me that the picture was included to indicate that they were talking about stressed trees in a dry place. Perhaps not the best practice, but it does convey the idea. From the sat photo, the area does not look quite that dry and so maybe it was an exaggeration of the dryness.

  4. PHE
    Posted Apr 14, 2007 at 2:01 PM | Permalink

    I have photos (taken by me) of very similar trees in very similar-looking deserts of northern Oman and UAE. Thus, I see nothing false about this image. Its true that it is a stunning site to see such trees, which is why I took the pictures. I could post one or two – if its possible and I knew how. In my case (as a hydrogeologist), I knew there was groundwater at only a few metres below the desert surface, which is what the trees would live from, even though it rained perhaps once a year (I think they are also capable of using moisture from dew). Many deserts have high quality groundwater beneath them. This allowed Saudi Arabia to be the world’s 4th largeset exporter of wheat about 15 yrs ago (now not the case), and which helped Libya to create the ‘Great Manmade River Project, whereby fresh water is transported 100s of km from the Libyan deserts to the coast for wasteful farming schemes. If its possible to post images (without a website link), please let me know how.

  5. MrPete
    Posted Apr 14, 2007 at 2:08 PM | Permalink

    Steve M said

    …twq’s surmise that someone had “drawn” the picture is incorrect and that it is a real picture, just not a picture of Dulan junipers.

    To me, twq’s use of “drawn” here is a question of language. It could be a built-up composite, it could be a low-quality save with a few ‘tweaks’. The tree is definitely darker than the rest, but brightness/contrast processing can make such changes as well.

    There’s not enough evidence for me to be conclusive that it’s a cut/paste job. If it is a composite, it’s actually done with a bit of expertise, in spite of the strange shadows. There’s little or none of the common cut/paste “edge effect” around the tree.

    Here’s a fun little test for you, taken from my desktop. The first is the original, the second is a low quality JPG saved version. Both are captured at 200% so you can see the difference more easily. Click to view at full size.

    Four items are in the photo:

    * Trees

    * Pond

    * Hair

    * Hat

    The scene is back-lit.

    1) Is it a composite?
    2) If so, how many sources were used to paste the above items? What tells you this?

  6. David Smith
    Posted Apr 14, 2007 at 2:34 PM | Permalink

    PHE, my suggestion is to e-mail several of the photos to Steve M (smcintyre25 AT, I believe) and Steve can judge and post. I’d like to see several, as they have an almost surreal appearance.

  7. John A
    Posted Apr 14, 2007 at 3:20 PM | Permalink


    Open a (free) account on, upload the photos there and then post the links here. That’s what I do.

  8. twq
    Posted Apr 14, 2007 at 3:43 PM | Permalink

    Secondly and perhaps most importantly, there are other “tree in the desert” pictures from the area between Xining and Dunhuang (especially around Dunhuang.)
    Here is a picture of an oasis near Dunhuang described here as follows:

    Dunhuang is located to the north of Qilianshan region. It is a part of Heri corridor, which does not belong to Qilianshan. There is 8 big desert in China. I have seen many trees in China, for example, the lower reaches of rivers of whose provenance is from Qilianshan region. However, these trees is not juniper and grow along the riverside, which is feed by groundwater. Furthermore, these trees is not only in the form of single one, but in way of groups. I have often see a single treee growing in the coutryside, but it is cultivated by local people. Therefore, I conclude that the tree in the desert as you presented here is unusual. Especially, it is not possible that the tree in the desert is intended to be regarded as precipitation-proxy evidence of Qilianshan region.

    I have taken pictures of Junipers in Dulan region. Also I have not found so spectacular phenonem scene in Qilianshan region. Unfortunately, I can not post it here.

  9. twq
    Posted Apr 14, 2007 at 4:16 PM | Permalink

    The second point that I express is about the closing slide present in Shao’s presentation. Everyone knows the picture of a tree in the desert is last one of Shao’s presentation. It is specially noted that in the last slide, the word “Thanks” is clearly displayed on the picture slide. For me, it is easy to understand it is just a picture, which has little to do with the topic of the presentation, and it just a closing slide to express the talker’s thanks. Myabe this misunderstanding is due to culture conflict between east and west. Sometimes some Chinese scientists would’d like to display one humorous or kind irrelative-presentation picture (for example, a beutiful tulip) as closing slide. In order to avoid mispresentation or misinformation, I think it is reasonable one should communicate with related scientists and ask what you are concerned before you adopt and comment it, especially for this Blog of Climate Audit.

  10. agesilaus
    Posted Apr 14, 2007 at 7:06 PM | Permalink

    Is a search on for photos with the tag “Dunhuang”. There are 194 photos found in the search and 21 galleries or photos. And several shots show trees in highly desert areas, like this one:

    I got no hits for “Dulan” on PBase. PBase by the way is an excellent source of photos, they have millions of photos posted by the photographers and most are fairly high quality shots. They also have an excellent search engine.

  11. agesilaus
    Posted Apr 14, 2007 at 7:27 PM | Permalink

    Well heck no links came thru on the above post,

    Just got to and type in Dunhaung in the search box. I think the spam filter is eating the links

  12. PHE
    Posted Apr 15, 2007 at 12:57 AM | Permalink

    I don’t yet have the Oman photos. They’re from pre-digital days, so I need to scan them. In the meantime, here’s one from a northern European country. Its strange situation is definitely a result of climate change. Its 40km from the coast, so not on a beach.

  13. PHE
    Posted Apr 15, 2007 at 1:00 AM | Permalink

    I’ve tried a photo upload via (thanks John A for advice). But got an error message about not having permission to access this site.

  14. PHE
    Posted Apr 15, 2007 at 1:11 AM | Permalink

    OK, it working now. My photo is in fact from the Netherlands. The ‘climate change’ in question occurred around 10,000 years ago. As the glaciers of northern Europe receded, they left an area of fine sand in this part of the Netherlands. I suspect the dunes were covered with vegetation for many years, but with a delicate soil that has eroded away more recently, perhaps due to influence of man. There are several dunes like this. This one, at Soestduinen, is clearly visible on satellite images, and the individual trees too if you zoom in. What does this all show? I could see such photos being used someday to illustrate severe impacts of global warming in Europe! A photo can tell a thousand words, but also perhaps a few lies when mis-used. Other examples are images of how far glaciers have receded since 1880s, and of polar bears stranded on melting ice.

    The dunes and tress of Soestduinen from above:

  15. PHE
    Posted Apr 15, 2007 at 4:33 AM | Permalink

    Here are some trees in the sandy desert near the town of Buraimi, close to the Oman/UAE border. I admit they do not look as lush as the original picture, but the impact is similar.

    All photos taken by me – for real – in 1990.

  16. David Smith
    Posted Apr 15, 2007 at 7:25 AM | Permalink

    RE #16 Those are beautiful shots, PHE.

    I bet they’ve no problem with squirrels.

  17. PHE
    Posted Apr 15, 2007 at 11:52 AM | Permalink

    And this is the general location of the trees. The white line is the border – UAE to the left and Oman to the right. Dubai is on the coast on the west side of the image. Buraimi is indicated by the arrow. The red dunes extend along the north-south zone parallel with the border.

    And here’s a ‘zoom-in’ to some individual trees sprouting out of the red dunes:

  18. Hans Erren
    Posted Apr 15, 2007 at 2:36 PM | Permalink

    re 12:

    Your picture from holland is a pinus sylvestris the picture below is a real Juniper (Juniperus communis) from Kootwijkerzand

    Thanks to the dutch juniperguild

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