Although dunes are very common bedforms in terrestrial sand seas, the description of linear dune growth, either by extension or lateral accretion, is still hindered by our limited understanding of the underlying mechanisms. Therefore, sand flux estimates from remote imagery rely essentially on the migration speed of barchan dunes, but not on the dynamics of linear dunes. Here we use ∼50 yr of high-resolution aerial and satellite imagery of the Ténéré desert (Niger), the world’s largest source of mineral aerosols, to demonstrate that linear dunes can elongate in the direction of the resultant sand flux with no lateral migration. As they elongate from topographic obstacles in a zone of low sediment availability with multimodal winds, these elongating lee dunes are ideal to isolate and quantify linear dune growth only by extension. Using similar conditions in a numerical model, we show how deposition downstream of low hills may result in nucleation and development of bedforms. From elongation we derive the local sand flux parallel to the linear dune crests. This study shows that the morphodynamics of linear dunes under complex wind regimes can also be used for assessing sediment flux and wind conditions, comparably to the more-established method of using sand flux estimates perpendicular to the barchan dune crests in zones of unidirectional wind.