Aloft in a wilderness of blowing sand, Alain Arnoux pilots his motorized paraglider in tricky winds along a massive dune in Iran's vast Lut Desert. Frenchman Arnoux, a champion flier, has assisted photographer George Steinmetz on more than a dozen aerial expeditions to document the shape-shifting beauty of the world's arid zones. www.georgesteinmetz.com

DASHT-E LUT ▪ IRAN

Aloft in a wilderness of blowing sand, Alain Arnoux pilots his motorized paraglider in tricky winds along a massive dune in Iran's vast Lut Desert. Frenchman Arnoux, a champion flier, has assisted photographer George Steinmetz on more than a dozen aerial expeditions to document the shape-shifting beauty of the world's arid zones. www.georgesteinmetz.com

Sailing the Dunes

A photographer sets out to fly over the world’s most extreme deserts, guided by the shifting sand.

I got my first lesson in the physics of sand dunes in 1998 on an expedition into the Sahara. In order to take aerial photos in this remote part of the world, I had learned to fly a motorized paraglider, one of the lightest and slowest aircraft in the world. It weighs a little under a hundred pounds; its top airspeed is 30 miles an hour. And it has no wheels.

I mastered new skills to fly (and land) the paraglider. But there was one I hadn’t realized I’d need to survive the Sahara: reading sand dunes. Just as the sailor watches whitecaps for the sudden squall, I had to learn to anticipate the invisible currents of air that created the dunes. If I wasn’t paying attention, I could get caught in turbulence—or even a fatal downdraft.

The Sahara is traversed by endless rows of dunes called barchans. The word means “crescent-shaped dune” in the Turkic languages of eastern Europe and Central and northern Asia. I had become intrigued with them while reading a book by Ralph Bagnold, a British Army officer who pioneered motorized travel in the Libyan Desert in the 1920s and ’30s. Bagnold described barchans as life-forms—they move, multiply, maintain structure, and adapt to their environment. I thought they might be interesting to photograph from above.

Read This Next

These ants can shrink and regrow their brains

How to stop discarded face masks from polluting the planet

‘Tiger King’ stars’ face scrutiny in court

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet