Gobi Desert: Central Asia

T he dry, wind-tormented sands of the 500,000-square-mile (1.3 million sq km) Gobi Desert harbor deep secrets—from the evolution of life to the restless stirrings of the planet. The high, windy, bone-dry region is a continental desert as a result of the mountains that surround it and cut it off from moist, ocean air in the middle of the Eurasian continent. The titanic surrounding mountain systems wring all the moisture out of the air before it reaches the Gobi, creating one of the world's largest desert regions.

The arid conditions that have stripped the Gobi of soil and stunted its plants and animals have also made it one of the great research laboratories for scientists studying climate and prehistoric life. The massive, unstable sand dunes of the Gobi have persisted for millions of years. Abrupt sand slides rushing down the slope of dunes hundreds of feet high some 80 million years ago buried dinosaurs and other creatures alive and in recent years have yielded some of the world's best-preserved fossils. These fossils have transformed our understanding of dinosaurs, illuminated the links between dinosaurs and birds, and even revealed telling details about our own mammalian ancestry. Moreover, the hardships of the desert and the grasslands that surround it spawned the nomadic Mongol cultures, which at one point under the leadership of brilliant and ruthless leaders like Genghis Khan ruled much of the known world.

The great bulk of the Gobi is a vast plain with soils made of chalks and limestone sediments laid down in the Cenozoic era (up to 66 million years ago). High, cold, nearly waterless, and far from the moderating effects of the ocean, the Gobi is a land of extremes. Lows in January in many areas plunge to –40°F (4°C), while summer highs can soar to 113°F (45°C).