The "mountain-moving project," already in progress, is being conducted without environmental assessment, and a paper published last week in the scientific magazine Nature warns of perils.
"The consequences of these unprecedented programs have not been thought through -- environmentally, technically or economically," said Peiyue Li, one of the paper's writers, said.
The plan is to bulldoze the tops of mountains and use the removed soil to fill in gaps between the mountains, rendering flat land for suburban growth. Over $3 billion is being spent to remove mountains around the city of Lanzhou; the result will be 500 new square miles of land to develop. A similar project, begun in 2012, will create nearly 80 square miles of flat ground around the city of Yan'an.
"We're moving ahead without much insight into what the result will be, especially when it comes to the water, the hydrology, the water quality implications," said Brian McGlynn, a Duke University professor. "We don't have any experience with manipulations on this scale: It's a large experiment."
The researchers warn that the newly-created available land could be unstable and unable to support construction projects. "There are no guidelines for creating land in the complex geological and hydrogeological conditions that are typical of mountainous zones," they wrote. "Many land-creation projects in China ignore environmental regulations, because local governments tend to prioritize making money over protecting nature."