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The World's Greatest Deserts
We know deserts as being the most inhospitable of environments, where extreme weather conditions ensure that only the strongest can survive. For a whiff of just how unbelievably hot these places can get, some sources agree that the hottest land temperature ever recorded was 136° Fahrenheit in a portion of the Sahara desert in Lybia in 1922.
Despite such extreme conditions, the Earth's deserts have a beauty all of their own. They are vast, mysterious, and ancient. They have inspired tales of rugged adventurers braving sandstorms on quests to discover the ruins of ancient civilisations. And believe it or not, not all of them are actually extremely hot—they're rather cold (more on this later).
T.E. Lawrence, played by Peter O' Toole, said it best in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. When asked what attracts him personally to the desert, he responds: "It's clean."
Here are seven of the world's greatest deserts that this article discusses:
7 Great Deserts Covered in This Article
- Sahara Desert
- Great Australian Desert ("The Outback")
- The Antarctic
- Kalahari Desert
- Gobi Desert
- Arabian Desert
- Patagonian Desert
1. Sahara Desert
The largest of the hot-weather deserts, the Sahara was once lush green land sprinkled with lakes and fishing settlements. Now it's anything but, yet in thousands of years' time, it may return to its original state, as its climate is affected by the Earth's constantly changing orbital rotation around its axis (a cycle that repeats every 23,000 years).
Facts and Info
Size: 9,200,000 km2 (almost the same size as the USA)
Location: Northern Africa
Most recognisable feature: The rolling sand dunes of the Sahara, which can reach as high as 180 meters, are an iconic image from film and photography.
Human civilisations: The Sahara surrounded Ancient Egypt, providing a natural barrier to invasion. It was also a source of valuable minerals, including iron from fallen meteorites.
- Camels (of course)
- The West African Crocodile (they live in caves during draught)
- Gazelles and antelopes
- The African wild dog
- The Anubis baboon
- Desert foxes
- Red-necked ostrich
- Sand vipers
- The Deathstalker scorpion (one of the most dangerous species of scorpion in the world)
The link between the Sahara and the Amazon: One is a dry desert, the other a lush rainforest, and a vast ocean lies between them. Yet, what happens in one affects the other.
Dust from the Sahara Desert is carried by the wind across the Atlantic Ocean to the Amazon jungle, where it provides valuable nutrients to plant life.
The Trans-Saharan slave trade: During the Middle Ages, slaves were transported from Sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa via this deadly dune sea. European sailors shipwrecked on the Western shores of Africa could also find themselves at the mercy of desert-dwelling slavers.
2. Great Australian Desert ("The Outback")
Less than 10% of Australia's population lives outside the coastal cities, for to venture inland is to be swallowed up by one of the world's most famous deserts. That said, there are still numerous remote Aboriginal communities peppered throughout the Outback.
The Outback is home to many creatures that can kill you, but it also possesses great beauty and spiritual power. Here, the night sky contains a myriad of beautiful stars, clearly visible due to the lack of light pollution.
Facts and Info
Size: 2,700,000 km2
Most recognisable feature: Ayers Rock/Uluru is the famous flat-topped sandstone monolith that stands taller than the Eiffel Tower. It is a sacred site for the ancient indigenous people.
Human civilisations: The Aboriginal peoples of Australia have wandered this desert for around 68,000 years, using natural landmarks to navigate the vast landscape and creating vivid stories of "The Dreamtime," which they believe to be the basis for creation.
- Saltwater crocodiles (that have somehow found their way into freshwater rivers and swamps)
- A variety of venomous snakes (including some that are deadly to humans)
- The frilled-necked lizard (which looks like a miniature version of the v from Jurassic Park)
- Australian feral camels
- The thorny devil (a spike-covered lizard)
Dinosaur tracks: Over 3,000 fossilised dinosaur footprints can be found near Lark Quarry Conservation Park, believed to have been made by a stampede of two-legged dinosaurs fleeing a larger predator.
The Dingo Fence: China has the Great Wall, and Australia has the Dingo Fence, the world's longest fence. It was built in the latter 19th century to protect sheep in Southern Queensland from roving dingos.
3. The Antarctic
Contrary to what you may think, a region need not experience searing heat in order to qualify as a desert. A low rate of precipitation is all that is required, and the Antarctic meets that criteria, making it the largest desert in the world.
98% of the Antarctic continent is covered in a permanent ice sheet, which contains around 70% of the world's freshwater supply.
Facts and Info
Size: 14,200,000 km2
Location: South Pole
Climate: Polar ice and tundra
Most recognisable feature: A 2,000-mile mountain range known as the Transantarctic Mountains divides the Antarctic continent into east and west. Although the only lifeforms to be found here are bacteria and algae, the Antarctic was once a green continent full of life, and the mountains contain the highest concentration of fossils on the planet.
Human civilisations: No signs of human life have ever been discovered on the Antarctic continent. The only human settlements here are research stations.
Animal life (this is mostly restricted to the coastal regions):
- Sea birds (such as the wandering albatross)
- There are no trees and only two species of plant (the Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort)
4. Kalahari Desert
Classified as a semi-desert due to receiving a higher amount of rainfall compared to other deserts, the Kalahari is part savannah and part "thirstland" (the name comes from the Tswana word kgala, meaning "the great thirst"). The water seeps quickly through the sand, leaving most of the region dry and waterless despite the high rainfall.
It is a place of extremes, enduring blistering hot summers and icy cold winters. It is the second-largest desert in Africa behind the Sahara, and yet it covers almost the entirety of Botswana, a central southern-African country just north of South Africa.
Facts and Info
Size: 900,000 km2
Location: Southern portion of the African continent, bordering Namibia, Angola, Botswana and South Africa
Most recognisable feature: The Makgadikgadi Salt Pans are the largest salt flats in the world. That's 3,900 kilometres of plains covered in salt so thick it looks like snow. Herds of zebra and wildebeest traverse the salt pans during their annual migration.
Human civilisations: The bushmen have made the desert their home for thousands of years, although unfortunately many of them have been forced into government resettlement camps. The Tsodilo Hills in Botswana is a sacred site to the bushmen and an important archaeological site containing hundreds of ancient rock paintings.
Animal life: The Kalahari is rich in wildlife, being the location of many nature reserves including the Kalahari Private Reserve where all of the Big 5 can be seen:
- Black rhinoceroses
- African bush elephants
- African buffalo
5. Gobi Desert
This is a cold-weather desert that stretches from the plains of Mongolia to the foot of the Tibetan mountain range.
The famous Silk Road, a trade route that connected Europe to the far east, traversed this haunting landscape for centuries. Merchant caravans risked raids from desert-dwelling bandits to obtain the exotic goods found in India and China.
Facts and Info
Size: 1,295,000 km2
Location: Eastern Asia
Climate: Cold winter
Most recognisable feature: The Khongor Sand Dunes, which can reach as high as 200 meters. In some areas, the sound of the wind across the sand resembles that of an aeroplane, leading to the name "Singing Dunes."
Human civilisations: The Mongolian Empire, the largest land empire in history, covered part of the Gobi Desert. The Silk Road, which had become dangerous since the fall of the Roman Empire, was revitalised under Mongolian protection.
- Snow leopards (an extremely rare species)
- Gobi bears (the world's rarest bear and the only one that dwells exclusively in a desert environment)
- Golden eagles
- Gobi pit vipers (a venomous snake)
- Jerboas (a spry desert rodent)
An Ancient Place
Fossils as old as 100,000 years old have been uncovered here, including that of a velociraptor frozen in a fighting pose, known as the "Two Fighting Dinosaurs" discovery.
6. Arabian Desert
This is the desert that inspired tales of djinn, magic lamps, and secret caves filled with treasure. Unlike these colourful stories, it is a dry and arid landscape with a searing heat that makes it difficult to survive.
Nonetheless, the nomadic Bedouins have roamed the dunes for thousands of years, riding their camels by day and gathering around twinkling campfires beneath the stars by night.
Facts and Info
Size: 2,330,000 km2
Location: Western Asia
Most recognisable feature: The Rub’ al Khali ("Empty Quarter") is the world's largest uninterrupted desert, containing enough sand to fill half of the Sahara. As the name suggests, the region is mostly devoid of civilisation, except for the ever-resilient Bedouin.
Human civilisations: During Europe's Middle Ages, the Arab Caliphates were the mightiest and most enlightened kingdoms on earth, preserving much of the knowledge thought lost with the fall of the Roman Empire.
- Vultures (that feed on the widespread carrion)
- Lesser bustards
- Sand grouses
- Striped larks
- Arabian coursers
- Flamingos (this species passes through here during its annual migration)
- Arabian horned vipers
- Arabian fat-tailed scorpions
- Hamadryas baboons
- Arabian oryxs
7. Patagonian Desert
The continent famous for the Amazon Jungle also has one of the world's largest deserts. Located in the southernmost portion of South America, the Patagonian Desert covers half of Argentina and Chile, yet comprises less than 5% of either country's population.
There are long stretches of plains with nary a tree to be seen, surrounded by mountains that touch the shores of the icy Atlantic Ocean. In the south, the city of Ushuaia is a popular launching point for Antarctic cruises.
Facts and Info
Size: 673,000 km2
Location: South America
Climate: Cold winter
Most recognisable feature: The Andes Mountains is the world's longest mountain range. It stretches across the entire western coast of the continent (the portion that passes through Peru contains the source of the Amazon River).
Human civilisations: Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who landed in the region in 1520, believed it to be inhabited by giants. In truth, the Tehuelche, who roamed the Patagonian plains for thousands of years, were just slightly taller than your average European.
The Cuevas de las Manos ("cave of hands") contains hundreds of rock paintings depicting hands. It has been dated back to 8000 BC.
- Penguins (many of them)
- South Andean deers
- Guanacos (relatives of the llama)
- The crested caracaras (a species of falcon)
Rachel Ross. 2022, 25 February. The Sahara: Earth's largest hot desert (LiveScience).
Ellen Gray. 2017, 7 August. NASA Satellite Reveals How Much Saharan Dust Feeds Amazon’s Plants (NASA.gov).
Laura Pattara. 2018, 7 February. 10 Incredible Patagonia Facts You Need to Know (vivaexpeditions.com).
Jules. 2013, 19 June. Top 7 Largest Deserts in the World (puretravel.com).
UCSB ScienceLine. 2012, 12 October. Which is the hottest desert in the world? (https://scienceline.ucsb.edu/).
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.