Spanning over one-fifth of the Earth’s land surface, deserts never fail to intrigue people who have a knack to unearth the aberrant. Here are some quick insights into the deserts of the world.
Scorching temperatures, poor precipitation, frigid, hostile and dry environment, sparse vegetation, and more are the most recognizable features of deserts. Yet, despite bearing such inhospitable-to-life features, these supposedly barren wastelands are home to over one billion people.
The manner in which the plants and animals living in these harsh lands have adapted to their habitat is but a remarkable example of life on the edge. Desert plants grow long roots to tap water from deep underground, and reduce their leaves to spines to cut down on evaporation. Animals prefer being active nocturnally to escape the sun’s heat during the day, and have adapted to keep cool and go without water for days.
What’s more, what you may not have thought is a desert, actually is the largest in the world. And what you thought was the largest in the world, is just a mere name when compared to these huge deserts around the world. Confused? We begin this piece with the top 5 largest deserts in the world, followed by the other notable deserts.
Top Five Largest Deserts in the World
▶ The entire continent of Antarctica receives an annual precipitation of 6.5 inches, which makes it a polar desert. It is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent on earth.
▶ Located in the southernmost point of the earth, the desert spans over 5,339,573 square miles, which makes it the largest desert in the world.
▶ Antarctica is also the fifth-largest continent on earth. To give you a general idea about its size, it is 1.3 times as large as Europe.
▶ More than 99% of the desert is covered by an ice sheet. The ice sheet has been there for 40 million years.
▶ On 21st July, 1983, the lowest natural air temperature was recorded in this desert. It was -89.2 °C.
▶ It is the sea in Antarctica that sustains most of the wildlife, particularly seals, whales and penguins. The flora comprises merely two species of flowering plants.
▶ The Arctic Desert is a polar desert that lies in the North Pole, and receives an annual precipitation of less than 10 inches.
▶ With a surface area of 5,300,000 square miles, the Arctic Desert is the second largest desert in the world.
▶ During winter, its average temperature is -40 °C. Coldest recorded temperature is -68 °C. During the month of July, the desert has an average temperature ranging from -10 °C to 10 °C.
▶ Animals that have adapted to the freezing and dry habitat of the Arctic Desert include the polar bear, reindeer, arctic fox, arctic wolf, caribou, arctic hare, snowy owl, and muskox. Vegetation here, mainly comprises grasses, shrubs, mosses, and lichens.
▶ The third largest desert in the world is the Sahara. It occupies an area of 3,629,360 square miles. The Sahara is also the largest hot desert in the world.
▶ The desert receives a yearly rainfall of less than 3 inches. It has a sub tropical climate in the north, and a tropical climate, in the south.
▶ Some of the sand dunes found in this region can be as high as 590 ft.
▶ The volcano Emi Koussi stands tall at 11,302 feet, as the highest mountain in this desert.
▶ Daily temperature may range from -0.5 °C to 37.5 °C. During the hottest month, the mercury level reaches over 50 °C, and falls below freezing point during the winter.
▶ The Sahara Desert vegetation mainly includes grass, succulents, shrubs, and trees.
▶ Fauna comprises dromedary camels and goats (the domesticated ones), the deathstalker Scorpion, secretary bird, pale fox, spotted hyena, the Sahara cheetah, and monitor lizards to name a few.
▶ Located in Western Asia, the Arabian Desert covers an area of 899,618 square miles. To give you an idea of its mammoth size, it has in its center, Rub’ al Khali – world’s largest sand desert, with an area of 250,966 square miles.
▶ Plants such as the calligonum crinitum, cornulaca Arabica, and cyperus conglomeratus grow in the desert.
▶ The annual precipitation recorded here is less than 4 inches. The desert has an extremely dry climate, with an average temperature ranging from 40 °C to 50 °C in summer, and 5 °C to 15 °C in winter. Temperatures below the freezing point have also been recorded.
▶ The desert’s wildlife comprises dromedary camels, gazelles, sand cats, the Arabian oryx, spiny-tailed lizards, monitor lizards, and the Arabian cobra.
▶ The Gobi Desert is in Asia, and is the fifth largest desert of the world, spanning over 500,002 square miles.
▶ The Gobi Desert is a cold desert, and its name “Gobi” means “very large and dry,” in Mongolian. The desert receives no more than 8 inches of rain annually. Some areas of the desert have the worst precipitation conditions; it pours only once every two to three years.
▶ Unlike most deserts that are choked with sand dunes, the Gobi exhibits mostly gravel plains and rocky outcrops.
▶ The desert is known for its extreme climate; temperature here ranges from -40 °C in winter to 40 °C in summer.
▶ The sparse vegetation of this desert mainly comprises bushes and a dozen kinds of grasses and herbs.
▶ Wildlife of the Gobi Desert comprises the black-tailed gazelle, marbled polecat, Bactrian camels, Mongolian wild ass, and sand plovers.
▶ Folklore has it, that the Gobi Desert emerged from the black magic of a Mongolian chief.
▶ Inarguably, the most notable feature of the Gobi Desert is its association with fossils. The first clutch of dinosaur eggs was found in this desert, during an expedition led by Roy Chapman Andrews, in 1923.
Other Deserts of the World
▶ The Kalahari Desert is largely covered by small red sand dunes and golden grass, and as strange as it may sound, it is not a true desert.
▶ The Kalahari supports more plant and animal life than other deserts, and some parts of it receive more than 9.8 inches of rain per year. The story, however, is different in the southwest region of the desert. Here, precipitation does not go beyond 6.9 inches a year.
▶ Located in Southern Africa, the desert stretches over an area of 359,075 square miles.
▶ In summer, the inhabitants of the Kalahari experience a temperature that can climb up to 40 °C, and in winters, it stays at around 25 °C.
▶ Apart from different reptiles and birds, this desert is home to brown hyenas, lions, meerkats, and several species of antelope. Camels, giraffes, and warthogs also inhabit the region, despite its aridity.
▶ Dry grassland and scrubby acacias comprise the desert’s vegetation.
▶ The Patagonian Desert is the largest desert in Argentina, and the seventh largest in the world; it occupies an area of 260,000 square miles.
▶ Annual precipitation ranges from 3.9 to 10.2 inches.
▶ Desert shrubs, tuft grass, and aquatic grass grow on the outskirts of the desert.
▶ The desert’s climate is divided into seven months of summer and five months of winter. Different parts of the desert exhibit different day and night temperatures.
▶ The Patagonian weasel, Patagonian gray fox, mara, and armadillo to name a few, comprise the major animal species that thrive in this desert.
Great Victoria Desert
▶ The Great Victoria, the largest desert in Australia, has an area of 250,000 square miles. Explorer Ernest Giles named it after Queen Victoria, in 1875.
▶ The desert receives 6 to 10 inches of rain per year; the rainfall is erratic in its occurrence.
▶ Temperatures ranging from 32 °C to 40 °C are common during summer, and 18 °C to 23 °C, in winter.
▶ Marble gums, mulga, and spinifex grass comprise the common vegetation found in this desert.
▶ The great desert skink, dingo, Gould’s goanna, the water-holding frog, and feral foxes, comprise the fauna.
▶ Covering an area of 200,000 square miles, the Syrian Desert dominates the southwestern edge of the Asian continent.
▶ This place receives an annual precipitation of less than 5 inches, with the inland areas recording a figure of 3.1 inches.
▶ The Syrian Desert is a rocky wasteland, largely covered by lava flows. It has warm winters and hot summers. It is characterized by a subtropical, continental, and dry climate.
Great Basin Desert
▶ The Great Basin, a cold desert, is one of the major deserts in the US. It is spread over an area of 190,000 square miles.
▶ The desert experiences less than 10 inches of rain annually, with most of the rain occurring as winter snow.
▶ Maximum average temperature recorded annually ranges from 5 °C to 30 °C, and the minimum temperature, from 14 °C to -8 °C.
▶ Nearly 800 species of plants populate the desert, despite its arid and harsh conditions. Animal species that have adapted themselves to survive the hardy conditions in the desert include beavers, water shrews, pygmy rabbits, porcupines, and big horn sheep.
▶ The second largest desert in North America, the Chihuahuan Desert covers an area of about 175,000 square miles; making it the third largest desert in the Western Hemisphere.
▶ Annual precipitation is not more than 10 inches; most of the rainfall occurs during the monsoon season of late summer. This amount of rainfall, is however, more than most other warmer desert ecoregions.
▶ Given its higher altitude (600 – 1,675 m), the desert usually has a cooler temperature. Inhabitants experience a mean temperature of 18.6 °C throughout the year.
▶ Unlike most other deserts, the Chihuahuan Desert is biologically more diverse. It includes plants such as agave, creosote bush, mesquite tree, prickly pear, peyote, and lechuguilla to name a few.
▶ It has a broad range of animal species ranging from the desert cottontail, black-tailed jack rabbit, cactus mouse, kit fox, cactus wren to the greater road runner. Reptiles that inhabit the desert include the Mojave rattlesnake, coachwhip snake, new Mexican whiptail lizard, and geckos. Red-spotted toads and barred tiger salamanders can also be found here.
Great Sandy Desert
▶ The Great Sandy Desert is the second largest desert in Australia. It covers an area of 150,000 square miles.
▶ Annual rainfall recorded in most dry areas of the desert is 9.8 inches, while in some areas, 12 inches.
▶ Summer days are hot, with temperatures ranging from 38 °C to 42 °C, while winters are a pleasant 25 °C to 30 °C.
▶ The Sandy Desert lives up to its name because miles and miles of this huge patch of land are covered by parallel rows of tall red sand dunes.
▶ The fauna of the desert includes feral camels, thorny devils, bearded dragon lizards, red kangaroos, dingoes, etc. Desert bloodwood, acacias, grevilleas, and desert oaks come in the list of the desert’s flora.
▶ The desert covers an area of 135,000 square miles. It is in Central Asia. The desert covers almost 70% of Turkmenistan.
▶ The Karakum Desert, is probably, noted for the natural gas field called the “Door to Hell.” This field lies in the middle of the desert, and has been burning since 1971. It is a crater that was accidentally formed during a drilling operation conducted by Russian scientists, in the same year.
▶ Also known by the name “Gara Gum,” this part of the earth receives 2.3 to 5.9 inches of rain per year. The southern part of the desert is reported to receive more rain.
▶ The desert is sparsely populated, and has a continental character. Summer days are long and hot, with temperatures that can easily peak up to 35 °C. Winter days are cold, with temperatures usually ranging from 20 °C to 10 °C.
▶ The desert’s flora mainly comprises ephemeral plants, wormwood shrubs, and Ammodendron conolly trees. The fauna includes mainly insects, various species of lizards, birds, and rodents. Mammals such as the corsac fox, goitered gazelle and hedgehogs can be found in the plains of the desert.
▶ The Colorado Plateau is a desert as it receives less than 10 inches of rain per year. A major portion of the plateau consists of high desert. It is in the southwestern part of the US.
▶ 130,000 square miles is the area that the plateau covers, and its climate greatly varies from south to north. The Colorado Plateau is a cold desert, and it does receive some snow fall.
▶ The plateau sustains 300 endemic species of plants, and vertebrates like the Kaibab squirrel, banner-tailed kangaroo rat, and desert night lizard to name a few.
▶ The Colorado Plateau is an important source of oil, uranium, and coal.
▶ Located in North America, the Sonoran Desert covers an area of 120,000 square miles.
▶ The desert’s average temperature in summer is about 30 °C, and 11 °C in winter. In some seasons, temperatures may drop to 0 °C.
▶ Also known as the Gila desert, its wildlife comprises the banded Gila monster, javelinas, bobcats, skunks, jackrabbits, coyotes, and the Mexican wolf. This desert is also known for the famous saguaro cactus, which grows only in this place.
▶ The place receives 3 to 16 inches of rain annually; a figure that does not comply with usual desert standards. The summer has a rainy season that brings short but heavy rains, and the winter has a rainy season, that brings lighter, but longer and more widespread rains. Given such characteristics, the Sonoran Desert is the wettest desert on earth.
▶ The flora of the Sonoran Desert mainly comprises plant species such as the agave, palm, cactus and legume.
▶ Also known as “Red Sand” in Turkish, Kyzyl Kum is a desert in Central Asia.
▶ The desert covers about 115,058 square miles, and annual precipitation here is 4 to 8 inches. Rain mostly occurs in winter and spring.
▶ Summer months are hot, while winter months, cold. During the summer, mercury levels climb up to 40 °C, and during the winter, the same may drop to -2 °C or as low as -4 °C.
▶ Wildlife consists of lizards, antelopes, and tortoise. Flora is mostly dominated by the chenopodiaceae.
▶ This desert is China’s largest desert, with an area of 105,000 square miles. It is also the world’s largest shifting desert.
▶ Rain shadow refers to an area that lies in the downwind side of a mountain. This area usually remains dry, because the mountain keeps the rain-bearing winds from reaching it. The Taklamakan Desert is a desert, for it lies in the rain shadow area of the Himalayas. It receives an annual rainfall of less than 1.57 inches, which makes it one of the driest places on earth.
▶ The maximum annual temperature of the desert is 39 °C. During winters, temperatures may easily fall below -20 °C.
▶ The desert’s vegetation is sparse and limited to tamarisk, nitre bushes, and reeds. However, it gets richer along the edges of the desert.
▶ The long-eared Jerboa, Bactrian camels, and Asian wild ass are the common animals that make up the fauna of the Taklamakan Desert.
▶ Also known as the Great Indian Desert, the Thar Desert occupies an area of more than 77,000 square miles.
▶ Located in the Indian subcontinent, annual precipitation recorded in this place is 4 to 19 inches. Rainfall here is mainly dependent on the southwest monsoon season, that occurs between July and September.
▶ Most of the desert lies in the Indian state of Rajasthan, and runs into the southern portion of Haryana and Punjab.
▶ The Thar Desert has an extreme climate. Winter brings near-freezing temperatures, while in summer, the mercury overshoots the 50 °C mark.
▶ Desert animals such as the Great Indian Bustard, black buck, Indian Gazelle, and the Indian Wild ass are found here. Eagles, harriers, falcons, buzzards, etc. are among the many species of birds that are commonly spotted in this region.
▶ The desert’s wide variety of flora includes many types of tree species, small trees, shrubs, and herbs.
▶ The Gibson Desert is in Western Australia, and is spread over an area of 60,230 square miles.
▶ Annual precipitation ranges from about 8 – 10 inches, and maximum temperature ranges from 40 °C (in summer) and 18 °C in winter. Nighttime temperatures during winter may be as low as 6 °C.
▶ The desert was named after Alfred Gibson – an explorer who passed away during an expedition in the same desert.
▶ The Gibson Desert is characterized by sand plains, dune fields, and lateritic gibber plains.
▶ Mulga and shrubs are the desert’s main vegetation. Feral pigs, foxes, rabbits, wild dogs, feral cats, and camels are the animal species that inhabit this place.
▶ With an area of 56,000 square miles, the Simpson Desert contains the world’s longest parallel sand dunes.
▶ Mean annual rainfall in this place is about 6 inches.
▶ Average temperatures recorded in summer, range from 36 – 39 °C, and 18 – 24 °C in winter. Hottest months of the year are January and February, with July being the coolest.
▶ There are over 800 species of plants which have been documented from this desert. Its common inhabitants are the water-holding frog, lizards, and marsupials.
▶ The Atacama Desert covers an area of 54,000 square miles.
▶ The Atacama Desert has more of a Mediterranean climate, characterized by a temperature ranging between 0 and 23 °C.
▶ The Atacama Desert is believed to be the oldest desert in the world; according to NASA, it is between 10 – 15 million years old.
▶ Owing to its clear skies, high altitude, and lack of light pollution, the Atacama Desert is a sought after place for astronomical observations.
▶ The desert receives an annual rainfall of 0.03 inches, making it the driest place on earth. According to NASA, there are parts of the desert which have not witnessed any rain for centuries.
▶ Despite such extremely harsh conditions, this place houses more than a million people, with some areas along the coast sustaining life in the form of cacti. Parts that come under complete aridity, are incapable to sustain even photosynthetic microorganisms, which thrive in other hardy deserts.
▶ The Mojave Desert lies in the southwestern part of the United States, and spans 48,000 square miles.
▶ The desert receives less than 6 inches of rain annually. Extreme temperatures characterize the desert. During the winter months, temperature dips to as low as -7 °C, and even colder at higher elevations. The summer months exhibit temperatures that can easily cross 49 °C.
▶ Plants which have adapted themselves to the environment of the desert include the Joshua tree, pinyon pine, mesquite, California juniper, and many other types of cacti and shrubs.
▶ The desert has a wide range of animals and birds; common examples include the gopher snake, hummingbird, kangaroo rat, the Mojave green rattlesnake, the Mojave ground squirrel, rosy boa, tarantula, and Western Diamondback Rattlesnake to name a few.
▶ Attributed as the world’s oldest desert, the Namib Desert has a stretch of 31,274 square miles.
▶ The desert is known for its sporadic and unpredictable rainfall. The land receives less than 0.7 inches of rain a year, and is almost completely barren.
▶ Temperatures may vary from coastal to the inland areas of the desert. In the coast, it usually ranges between 9 °C – 20 °C. In the inland, the daytime temperature may exceed 45 °C, while nights may be freezing.
▶ The tenebrionid beetle, Namib Desert beetle, black-backed jackal, desert lizards, and web-footed gecko are among the common animals found on this desert.
▶ Plants commonly found in the desert include low-lying shrubs, pencil plants, and dollar plants. The welwitschia plant, which Charles Darwin described as “platypus of the plant kingdom,” can be found only in this part of the world.
▶ A salt desert, the Dasht-e Lut is in Iran. It covers 20,000 square miles. Annual rainfall is less than 3.9 inches.
▶ In the year 2004 and 2005, this desert recorded the highest surface temperature on earth, which was 70.7 °C. The hottest land surface on Earth (not in all disciples though), Gandom Beryan, is in this desert.
▶ It is one of the driest places on earth, almost on a par with the Atacama Desert. The central portion of the desert is incapable of sustaining even bacterial life.
▶ The Dasht-e Kavir Desert of the Iranian plateau, has an area of about 30,000 square miles.
▶ Annual rainfall is less than 3.9 inches. Sometimes, it does not pour for several years and thus, the desert is attributed as almost rainless. When it does rain, it occurs in the winter.
▶ Shrubs and grasses are the common plant species here and as far as wildlife is concerned, the common animals include Persian gazelles, wild sheep, goats, and leopards. Wolves, foxes, lizards and snakes are also scattered in different parts of the desert.
Deserts do not have much to offer when it comes to factors necessary for survival. However, they are still inhabited by different living species, and have retained their attraction for those few desert lovers.