Shifting sand dunes fill approximately 85% of the vast Taklamakan Desert, most over 100 meters tall, with some rising over 300 meters high. While these dunes are in constant motion due to the ever-present gusting winds, the motion is usually gentle and localized. At times, however, strong winds can loft the sands high into the air and carry them hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometers as part of heavy, sun-shrouding sandstorms.
On September 22, 2013 the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite flew over the region and captured a strong sandstorm in progress. A broad blanket of sand covers the Tarim Basin, often obscuring the land from the satellite’s view. The snow-capped Tian Mountains to the north and the Kunlun Mountains to the southwest form a barrier to the sand’s movement, resulting in clear air over these ridges and to the north, west and southwest. Sand blows eastward relatively unobstructed while thin streams of sand appear to be covering parts of the Altun Mountains to the south of the desert.
The Taklamakan Desert lies in the rain shadow of the Tian Mountains, so precipitation in the region is very rare, yet the region suffers from extreme cold due to the influence of frigid Siberian air masses in winter. For about the last 50 years the Chinese government has attempted to encourage planting trees and managing the environment to try to slow desertification and increase the habitability of oasis settlements.