Earth from space: Near-lifeless 'Land of Terror' looks like an alien landscape in the Sahara

A satellite photo of the Sahara showing colorful rock folds and salt flats that look like abstract art
A roughly 100-mile-wide (160 kilometers) section of the Tanezrouft Basin in Algeria. The concentric rings are exposed folds of sandstone rock and the green splodges are salt flats. (Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Landast 8)
Quick facts

Where is it? Tanezrouft Basin, the Sahara . [26.2089113, 2.27090884].

What's in the photo? Exposed paleozoic rock folds and colorful salt pans.

Which satellite took the photo? Landsat 8.

When was it taken? Oct. 22, 2017.

This 2017 satellite photo shows the abstract beauty of one of the world's most terrifyingly hostile environments.

The Tanezrouft Basin is a large region of the Sahara mainly located in southern Algeria and northern Mali. The area receives less than 0.2 inches (5 millimeters) of rain a year on average, making it "hyperarid." Temperatures can reach over 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) during summer, according to NASA's Earth Observatory.

The basin is almost completely devoid of life apart from some Tuareg nomads who occasionally make the treacherous journey through the region on a caravan route that dates back more than 1,500 years. But this can be a deadly trip due to the region's lack of visible landmarks, which can cause even the most experienced travelers to get lost. As a result, the basin is colloquially known as the "Land of Terror."

Thousands of years of sandstorms have eroded sediment and sand from parts of the basin, which has revealed ancient concentric folds in the region's undulating sandstone bedrock that date to the Paleozoic era (541 million to 252 million years ago). Flashes of green are pitted around these folded rocks, which are salt flats often located in steep canyons.

When viewed from space, "the exposed geologic features create an arresting work of abstract art," NASA representatives wrote.

Related: 12 amazing images of Earth from space 

A touareg nomad standing next to an exposed sandstone wall in the desert

A Tuareg nomad standing next to an exposed sandstone fold in Algeria's Tassili N'Ajjer National Park to the north of the Tanezrouft Basin. (Image credit: Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)

The dramatic landscape also reveals that Tanezrouft Basin hasn't always been so hostile to life.

Some of the salt flats in this real-color image lay in canyons up to 1,600 feet (490 meters) deep. The scale of these steep gullies and the shape of their smoothed sides are signs that they were carved out by flowing water, potentially from intermittent flooding over millions of years, P. Kyle House, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey, told NASA's Earth Observatory. 

This suggests the region could have once been a more luscious environment potentially capable of supporting a diverse ecosystem.

Today, the salt flats and their canyons either lie within or intersect with the exposed sandstone folds, creating the shapes seen in this image. "These patterns are striking and reminiscent of landscapes formed on folded strata in, for example, the Red Desert of southern Wyoming and even parts of the heavily forested Appalachian Mountains of the Eastern United States," House said.

Harry Baker
Senior Staff Writer

Harry is a U.K.-based senior staff writer at Live Science. He studied marine biology at the University of Exeter before training to become a journalist. He covers a wide range of topics including space exploration, planetary science, space weather, climate change, animal behavior, evolution and paleontology. His feature on the upcoming solar maximum was shortlisted in the "top scoop" category at the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) Awards for Excellence in 2023.