The Tian Shan mountain range in China •

The Tian Shan mountain range in China


The Tian Shan mountain range is a large, isolated range surrounded by the desert basins of northern China, extending 2,500 km east-to-west across Central Asia. Similar to the Rocky Mountains of North America, the Tian Shan mountain range is thought to be an example of intra-continental mountain-building in the world. Ridges in the Tian Shan average about 4,000 m while the highest summits exceed 7,400 m elevation.

European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2A satellite takes us over northwestern China near the border with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in this false-color image.

The glaciers of Tian Shan have lost about a quarter of their ice mass since the 1960s, and scientists estimate that half of the remaining glaciers will have melted by 2050. Glaciers are a key indicator of climate change, and their melting poses threats to communities living downstream.

We know well that snow and clouds are both white – had this image been in true colour, we wouldn’t be able to differentiate between the two. But Sentinel-2’s imager can view the area in different parts of the spectrum, and can separate clouds from snow. In this image, clouds are white while snow appears blue. This is particularly important for mapping snow cover.

A few clouds can been seen over the mountains near the centre of the image, with thicker cloud cover in the valleys to the north.

The orange area on the right side of the image is part of the Bayanbulak Basin, a large grassland area of about 24 000 sq km. Although not pictured, the basin also hosts an important wetland and China’s very own ‘Swan lake’ – the highest-altitude breeding ground for swans in the world.

This area of the Tian Shan mountains in China’s Xinjiang Region became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.

Credit: Staff/European Space Agency

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