Dust mingled with clouds over the Taklimakan Desert in western China in early April 2011. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image on April 5, 2011.
Along the desert’s western margin, skies are free of clouds, allowing a view of dust plumes sweeping across the desert floor. Midway through the desert, clouds and dust form a swirling pattern spanning hundreds of kilometers.
The Taklimakan Desert sits in the Tarim Basin, located between the mountain ranges of the Tien Shan (or Tian Shan) in the north, and the Kunlun Shan in the south. Few places on Earth are farther away from an ocean than this desert, which is isolated from both the Asian monsoon and Arctic storms. The lack of moisture leaves the Taklimakan the driest desert in China—as well as the warmest and the largest. Mobile sand dunes cover about 85 percent of the Taklimakan, some of them reaching a height of 100 to 200 meters. What little water has reached the Tarim Basin has not been able to drain away, so evaporation has left behind large quantities of salt.