If someone asked you what the largest desert in the world is, what would your answer be? If you answered the Sahara Desert that answer is partially true. The Sahara Desert is the largest non-polar desert in the world, which means it's hot and arid and extremely hostile for plant and animal life.
But there also are semi-arid, coastal and cold deserts, aka polar deserts, that are also vast and barren. So, what are the largest deserts in the world and just how big are they?
When we think of most deserts in pop culture, we picture an arid environment of rolling sand dunes; however, there are four main types of deserts on Earth, and the most significant difference between the environments is their temperatures and where they are on Earth.
Hot and dry deserts have warm and dry temperatures year-round.
Semi-arid deserts have long, dry summers with some rain in the winter. They're also cooler than hot and dry deserts.
Coastal deserts have the most humidity of all four types, but rainfall is still rare.
Cold deserts are dry and extremely cold, though heavy snow and rain throughout the winter is common.
So now we know the four different types of deserts, but what is the largest desert in the world? Read on as we rank the 10 largest on the planet, starting with No. 10, and the many societies, plants and animals that have made their home in these challenging landscapes.
10. Great Basin Desert
The Great Basin Desert is a vast, arid region in the western United States, covering 190,000 square miles (492,000 square kilometers) of Nevada, Utah, California, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming. Its high elevation (9,000 feet [2,750 meters] or more above sea level), rugged terrain and scarce water resources make it one of the most desolate places in the country, with much of the area receiving less than 10 inches (25.4 centimeters) of rainfall per year. The Great Basin Desert is characterized by large groves of sagebrush, salt flats and dry lake beds and is home to various unique plant and animal species adapted to the desert environment. The 10th-largest desert in the world is also an important area for anthropology and natural history, with various remnants of Native American habitation for thousands of years and some of the oldest plant life on the planet. For example, the famous bristlecone pine, known as the "Prometheus Tree," was between 4,700 and 5,000 years old when it was cut in 1965.
9. Syrian Desert
The Syrian Desert, also known as the Badiyat ash-Sham, is a 190,000 square mile (492,000 square kilometers) arid region in the Middle East, covering parts of Syria, Jordan and Iraq. It is a harsh and inhospitable environment characterized by large swaths of barren sand and gravel plains, rocky mountains and occasional dry riverbeds called wadis. Like many other environments on this list, the Syrian Desert provides a harsh climate for only the hardiest of nomadic traveling societies. The famed Bedouin tribes took root in this area between the first and fourth centuries C.E, and many tribes still maintain their traditional lifestyle. However, these groups and their homeland are under threat from several environmental challenges, including oil drilling, overgrazing and increasing temperatures from climate change.
8. Kalahari Desert
This semi-arid desert is the eighth-largest desert in the world. It covers a surface area of roughly 220,000 square miles (569,797 square kilometers) of modern-day Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. Its rolling red sand dunes and vast savannahs are home to a variety of wild animals endemic to southern Africa, including lions, cheetahs, hyenas, giraffes and zebras. The Kalahari Desert is also home to several Indigenous tribes of San people who have lived in this region for millennia and still carry on their culture and traditions of close-knit family units and hunter-gatherer village life.
7. Great Victoria Desert
This Australian desert covers an area of 250,000 square miles (647,497 square kilometers) in a desolate landscape in the most remotely populated continent in the world. It is a vast region comprised of mainly flat grasslands, salt lakes, small mountains, dry valleys and rocky plateaus. Like the Sahara Desert with its rich history of nomadic peoples, the Great Victoria Desert is a vital cultural and spiritual homeland for Indigenous Aboriginal civilizations that have lived there for thousands of years.
6. Patagonian Desert
The Patagonian Desert in South America is the sixth-largest desert in the world and covers an area of 260,000 square miles (673,000 square kilometers) across Argentina and Chile. Backdropped by the imposing Andes Mountains and the Patagonian Steppe, this semi-arid desert teams with diverse plants and animals, including the Southern Beech Tree and the Patagonian Cypress. The Tehuelche people have called this place home for thousands of years. They are descended from ancient artists responsible for the paleolithic cave paintings at the UNESCO heritage site known as Cueva de las Manos. To explore these caves is to travel back in time to when the first humans left their mark on their world.
5. Gobi Desert
The massive Gobi Desert is the fifth-largest desert in the world at 500,000 square miles (1.3 million square kilometers). This vast rain shadow desert is sandwiched between the towering peaks of the Himalayas and the frigid steppes of Siberia; it's an extremely cold desert with little vegetation or precipitation apart from ice and snowstorms. Temperatures don't get as cold here as they do in the arctic tundra, but wind chill from Siberia can drop temperatures to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 40 degrees Celsius).
The Gobi Desert also one of the most historically important deserts on our list. Genghis Khan established his Mongol Empire here, and several Silk Road trading routes have passed through here since 130 B.C.E., connecting China with Central Asia and the Mediterranean region. As a result, the Gobi Desert played a crucial role in exchanging goods, ideas and cultures between different civilizations, including the Han Chinese, Mongols, Persians and Europeans.
4. Arabian Desert
The Arabian Desert, not to be confused with the Syrian Desert or North Arabian Desert, is the fourth-largest desert in the world. It is second in total land mass for subtropical deserts, with an expansive surface area of 1 million square miles (2.6 million square kilometers) scattered across the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabian Desert is also home to 102 endemic species of mammals and 310 various species of birds.
3. Sahara Desert
When you think of a desert with rolling sand dunes, camels and an occasional oasis, you're probably picturing the iconic Sahara of Northern Africa. The Sahara is the largest hot desert and the third-largest desert in the world, spanning 3.5 million square miles (9.1 million square kilometers) of arid, wind-swept landscapes. The Western Sahara expands to the Atlantic Ocean, while it also completely dominates the northern part of Africa, stretching north from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Near these coastal systems, the Sahara may experience between 4 and 10 inches (10 and 25 centimeters) of precipitation per year. Still, interior sand seas making up most of the core land mass rarely receive more than a quarter-inch of annual rain.
Amazingly enough, the Sahara continues to grow larger. A 2018 study from the National Science Foundation found that the desert has grown 10 percent since 1920. Many researchers agree that this trend will continue until humans dramatically reduce emissions and other forms of atmospheric pollution.
2. Arctic Polar Desert
The Earth's polar regions are home to the two largest deserts in the world. The cold desert of the arctic includes the polar tundra of Canada, Greenland and Russia and together it is the second-largest desert in the world. The massive 5.4 million square mile (13.9 million square kilometer) Arctic Polar Desert is just a few hundred square miles smaller than its counterpoint on the south pole. This desert gets little to no precipitation thanks in part to its extremely cold temperatures and dry air. Snow does fall, but it rarely melts. Despite these conditions, the Arctic Polar Desert is home to numerous species of hardy birds, walruses and polar bears.
1. Antarctic Polar Desert
Antarctica is the largest continent, as well as the largest desert in the world. This frigid wasteland dominates the South Pole with a massive surface area of 5.5 million square miles ( 14.2 million square kilometers). Antarctica also is the windiest continent and home to one of the driest places on Earth — the McMurdo Dry valleys. The McMurdo Dry valleys region is the only recorded area on Earth devoid of any microbial life.
For such a large space covered in seemingly endless ice, it may be strange to learn that the world's largest desert only receives 0.8 inches (2 centimeters) of precipitation per year. Sadly, this top spot on the world's largest desert list may not be locked in for long. With climate change and the unprecedented levels of ice melt at Earth's poles, polar deserts like this one may shrink in coming years, leading to rising sea levels and an irreparable disruption of these essential and fragile ecosystems.
Now That's Cold!
The average temperature in Antarctica hovers around 0 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 17.8 degrees Celsius), but it can get as low as minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 50 degrees Celsius) during the coldest winter months. The coldest recorded temperature in Antarctica occurred in July 1983 when this gargantuan polar desert dropped to an astounding minus 128.6 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 89.2 degrees Celsius).
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