What’s Keeping the Great Wall of China Looking Young? It’s a ‘Living Skin’

Researchers have found that a natural ‘biocrust‘ is protecting the historic cultural landmark.

Part of the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall in Chengde, Hebei Province of China. Photo Visual China Group via Getty Images.

A study published this month in peer-reviewed journal Science Advances has found that “living skins” are protecting parts of China’s Great Wall from the elements. “Biocrusts Protect the Great Wall of China from Erosion,” written by Yousong Cao, Matthew A. Bowker, Manual Degado-Baquerizo, and Bo Xiao, found that a layer of bacteria, moss, and “biocrusts” have helped prevent damage to the Wall.

The Great Wall of China was built over the course of two millennia and once stretched across more than 13,000 miles. The wall’s best preserved section, made during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), is almost 5,500 miles long. The landmark was described by researcher Bo Xiao as a “cultural symbol of China [and] Chinese civilization.” More than 10 million people visit the wall each year, and it is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The most-visited sections of the wall are made of brick and stone, but large parts are made of soil which is at high-risk of damage from the elements. It is these compacted-earth sections of the wall which have developed the biocrusts, which are mostly moss or microbial.

The research harnessed new technology to find that biocrusts cover 67 percent of the area studied, reducing erodibility, porosity, and water-holding capacity, all of which is helping to keep the construction upright. In comparison to parts of the soil wall without biocrusts, the organic layer was found to increase “sheer strength” and “stability” by between 37 and 321 percent.

This new research is hoped to disprove the notion that biocrusts could be a structural threat to man-made structures, and to emphasise the importance of protecting these “living skins” from the threat of climate change. In the paper, the researchers praise the structure: “Enduring for over five centuries, the Great Wall serves as an irreplaceable manifestation of the Chinese nation and an invaluable treasure of human civilization.”


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