The world’s 10 greatest deserts are found on just about every continent, many of them forming in the shadow of immense mountain ranges that block moisture from nearby oceans or bodies of water. They’re often the site of unusual rock formations and, in some cases, amazing archaeological finds.
1. Antarctic Desert
Nestled around the South Pole, where the coldest temperature on Earth was recorded and which doesn’t receive sunlight for months every year, it’s sometimes hard to think of icy Antarctica as a desert. But it is the world’s largest one because very little precipitation falls there — on average, it gets less than 2 inches (50 millimeters) a year, mostly as snow.
Despite the low snowfall, vast glaciers cover 99 percent of Antarctica’s surface. That’s because the average temperature (minus 54 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 48 degrees Celsius) slows down evaporation to a crawl. Over long periods of time, the snowfall accumulates at a rate faster than Antarctica’s ablation, according to “Discovering Antarctica,” a project of the U.K.’s Royal Geographical Society.
Parts of Antarctica are showing strong signs of warming up along with global climate change, however. Temperatures in the Antarctic Peninsula have increased by 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.5 degrees Celsius) over the past 50 years — five times the rate of the rest of the planet. And scientists think that warm ocean waters could be melting Antarctica’s glaciers as they flow under the floating tongues of ice.
The Arctic is a polar region located at the northernmost part of the Earth. The Arctic consists of the Arctic Ocean and parts of Canada, Russia, the United States (Alaska), Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. The Arctic region consists of a vast, ice-covered ocean, surrounded by treeless permafrost. The area can be defined as north of the Arctic Circle (66° 33’N), the approximate limit of the midnight sun and the polar night. Alternatively, it can be defined as the region where the average temperature for the warmest month (July) is below 10 °C (50 °F); the northernmost tree line roughly follows the isotherm at the boundary of this region.
Socially and politically, the Arctic region includes the northern territories of the eight Arctic states, although by natural science definitions much of this territory is considered subarctic. The Arctic region is a unique area among Earth’s ecosystems. The cultures in the region and the Arctic indigenous peoples have adapted to its cold and extreme conditions. In recent years the extent of the sea ice has declined. Life in the Arctic includes organisms living in the ice, zooplankton and phytoplankton, fish and marine mammals, birds, land animals, plants and human societies.
The Sahara , ‘the Great Desert is the world’s hottest desert, and the third largest desert after Antarctica and the Arctic. At over 9,400,000 square kilometres (3,600,000 sq mi), it covers most of North Africa, making it almost as large as China or the United States. The Sahara stretches from the Red Sea, including parts of the Mediterranean coasts to the Atlantic Ocean. To the south, it is delimited by the Sahel, a belt of semi-arid tropical savanna that composes the northern region of central and western Sub-Saharan Africa.
Some of the sand dunes can reach 180 metres (590 ft) in height. The name comes from the plural Arabic language word for desert.
The Sahara’s boundaries are the Atlantic Ocean on the west, the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean on the north, the Red Sea on the east, and the Sudan (region) and the valley of the Niger River on the south. The Sahara is divided into western Sahara, the central Ahaggar Mountains, the Tibesti Mountains, the Aïr Mountains (a region of desert mountains and high plateaus), Ténéré desert and the Libyan Desert (the most arid region). The highest peak in the Sahara is Emi Koussi (3,415 metres (11,204 ft)) in the Tibesti Mountains in northern Chad.
The Sahara is the largest desert on the African continent. The southern border of the Sahara is marked by a band of semiarid savanna called the Sahel; south of the Sahel lies Southern Sudan and the Congo River Basin. Most of the Sahara consists of rocky hamada; ergs (large areas covered with sand dunes) form only a minor part.
4. Arabian Desert
The Arabian Desert is located in Western Asia. It is a vast desert wilderness stretching from Yemen to the Persian Gulf and Oman to Jordan and Iraq. It occupies most of the Arabian Peninsula, with an area of 2,330,000 square kilometers (900,000 sq mi). At its center is the Rub’al-Khali, one of the largest continuous bodies of sand in the world. Gazelles, oryx, sand cats, and spiny-tailed lizards are just some of the desert-adapted species that survive in this extreme environment, which features everything from red dunes to deadly quicksand.
The climate is extremely dry, and temperatures oscillate between extreme heat and seasonal night time freezes. It is part of the Deserts and xeric shrublands biome and the Palearctic ecozone. This ecoregion holds little biodiversity, although a few endemic plants grow here. Many species, such as the striped hyena, jackal and honey badger have become extinct in this area due to hunting, human encroachment and habitat destruction. Other species have been successfully re-introduced, such as the sand gazelle, and are protected at a number of reserves. Overgrazing by livestock, off-road driving, and human destruction of habitat are the main threats to this desert ecoregion.
5. Gobi Desert
The Gobi is a large desert region in Asia. It covers parts of northern and northwestern China, and of southern Mongolia. The desert basins of the Gobi are bounded by the Altai Mountains and the grasslands and steppes of Mongolia on the north, by the Hexi Corridor and Tibetan Plateau to the southwest, and by the North China Plain to the southeast. The Gobi is most notable in history as part of the great Mongol Empire, and as the location of several important cities along the Silk Road.
The Gobi is made up of several distinct ecological and geographic regions based on variations in climate and topography. One is the Eastern Gobi desert steppe ecoregion, a palearctic ecoregion in the deserts and xeric shrublands biome, home to the Bactrian camel and various other animals. It is a rain shadow desert formed by the Himalaya range blocking rain-carrying clouds from the Indian Ocean from reaching the Gobi territory.
6. Kalahari Desert
The Kalahari Desert (in Afrikaans Kalahari-woestyn) is a large semi-arid sandy savannah in southern Africa extending 900,000 square kilometres (350,000 sq mi), covering much of Botswana and parts of Namibia and South Africa. A semi-desert, with huge tracts of excellent grazing after good rains, the Kalahari supports more animals and plants than a true desert, such as the Namib Desert to the west. There are small amounts of rainfall and the summer temperature is very high.
The driest areas usually receive 110–200 millimetres (4.3–7.9 in) of rain per year., and the wettest just a little over 500 millimetres (20 in). The surrounding Kalahari Basin covers over 2,500,000 square kilometres (970,000 sq mi) extending farther into Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, and encroaching into parts of Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Kalahari is home to many migratory birds and animals. Previously havens for wild animals from elephants to giraffes, and for predators such as lions and cheetahs, the riverbeds are now mostly grazing spots, though leopards and cheetahs can still be found. The area is now heavily grazed and cattle fences restrict the movement of wildlife. Among deserts of the southern hemisphere the Kalahari most closely resembles some Australian deserts in its latitude and its mode of formation.
7. Patagonian Desert
The Patagonian Desert, also known as the Patagonia Desert or the Patagonian Steppe, is the largest desert in Argentina and is the 7th largest desert in the world by area, occupying 673,000 square kilometers (260,000 mi²). It is located primarily in Argentina with small parts in Chile and is bounded by the Andes, to its west, and the Atlantic Ocean to its east, in the region of Patagonia, southern Argentina.
To the north the desert grades into the semi-arid Cuyo Region and the Dry and Humid Pampas. The central parts of the steppe are dominated by shrubby and herbaceous plant species albeit to the west, where precipitation is higher, bushes are replaced by grasses. Topographically the deserts consist of alternating tablelands and massifs dissected by river valleys and canyons. The more western parts of the steppe host lakes of glacial origin and grades into barren mountains or cold temperate forests along valleys.
Inhabited by hunter-gatherers since Pre-Hispanic times the desert faced in the 19th century migration of Mapuches, Chileans, Argentines, Welsh and other European peoples transforming it from a conflictive borderland zone to an integral part of Argentina with cattle, sheep and horse husbandry being the primary land use.
8. Great Victoria Desert
The Great Victoria Desert, an interim Australian bioregion, is a sparsely populated desert area in Western Australia and South Australia.The Great Victoria is the largest desert in Australia and consists of many small sandhills, grassland plains, areas with a closely packed surface of pebbles (called desert pavement or gibber plains) and salt lakes.
It is over 700 kilometres (430 mi) wide (from west to east) and covers an area of 348,750 square kilometres (134,650 sq mi) from the Eastern Goldfields region of Western Australia to the Gawler Ranges in South Australia. The Western Australia Mallee shrub ecoregion lies to the west, the Little Sandy Desert to the northwest, the Gibson Desert and the Central Ranges xeric shrublands to the north, the Tirari and Sturt Stony deserts to the east, while the Nullarbor Plain to the south separates it from the Southern Ocean. Average annual rainfall is low and irregular, ranging from 200 to 250 mm (7.9 to 9.8 in) per year. Thunderstorms are relatively common in the Great Victoria Desert, with an average of 15–20 thunderstorms per annum. Summer daytime temperatures range from 32 to 40 °C (90 to 104 °F) while in winter, this falls to 18 to 23 °C (64 to 73 °F).
9. Syrian Desert
The Syrian Desert, also known as the Syro-Arabian desert is a combination of steppe and true desert that is located in the northern Arabian Peninsula covering 200,000 square miles (over 500,000 square kilometers) of the region of Syria. The desert is very rocky and flat.
The Syrian desert is part of the Al-Hamad, which covers portions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Jordan,and Saudi Arabia. Its border on the west is the Orontes Valley, and its border on the east is the Euphrates. In the north, the desert gives way to the more fertile areas of grass. In the south, it runs into the deserts of the southern Arabian Peninsula. Many mini-deserts exist in the Syrian Desert such as Palmyra. Damascus is located on an oasis. The desert’s remarkable landscape was formed by lava flows from the volcanic region of the Jebel Druze in southern Syria. The Syrian Desert is the origin of the Syrian hamster.
10. Great Basin Desert
The Great Basin is the largest area of contiguous endorheic watersheds in North America. It is noted for both its arid climate and the Basin and range topography that varies from the North American low point at Badwater Basin to the highest point of the contiguous United States, less than 100 miles (160 km) away at the summit of Mount Whitney. The region spans several physiographic divisions, biomes/ecoregions, and deserts.
The Great Basin includes valleys, basins, lakes and mountain ranges of Basin and Range topography, with some in the phytogeographic Basin and Range Province. The Great Basin almost entirely contains the smaller Great Basin physiographic section, which extends about 10,000 sq mi (26,000 km2) into the Colorado River watershed (including the Las Vegas metropolitan area and northwest corner of Arizona). Geographic features near the Great Basin include the Continental Divide of the Americas, the Great Divide Basin, and the Gulf of California.
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