Largest Deserts in the World
People often think of deserts as hot, sandy places and depending on which desert you are referring to, you’d be correct. But did you know that not all deserts are hot? The simple definition of a desert is an area that receives little or no precipitation and the fact is, there are four types of deserts and the hot and dry ones that we generally associate with deserts are subtropical deserts. These tend to be hot and dry all year round. Then we have semiarid deserts which tend to have long dry summers and winters with perhaps just the occasional bit of rainfall. They are a little similar to subtropical deserts, but the temperature doesn’t get to the extreme highs of the subtropical deserts. Coastal deserts are usually quite cool, although they do have moderately warm summers and then we also have polar deserts. These are quite different to other deserts as they do have some precipitation, however, for most of the year, it is extremely cold and very dry.
Now that we’ve had a run-through of the different types of deserts, we’ll take a look at the 10 largest deserts in the world and explore what makes them unique places to do a little bit of exploring.
1. Kalahari Desert, Africa
The Kalahari Desert is a semi-arid desert in the south of Africa and covers a large area of Botswana, South Africa and Namibia. The very name, Kalahari, is derived from the word Kgala. In Tswana, this means “the great thirst”. The Kalahari spans over an area of 930 000 sq. kilometers (360 000 sq. miles) and most of the land is covered by red sand.
The Kalahari Desert is fortunate enough to have a little rainfall with some areas receiving around 200 milliliters per year and others lucky enough to get up to 500 milliliters a year. Although arid and dry for most of the year, when it does rain, the landscape is quite stunning and offers life to the native wildlife in the region. This would be a fascinating place to explore, particularly in the wet season.
2. Great Victoria Desert, Australia
In 1875, a British explorer named Ernest Giles, crossed a desert in Australia and named it after the reigning monarch at the time, Queen Victoria, and the largest desert in central Australia became the Great Victoria Desert. The desert stretches through the states of Western Australia and South Australia and covers an area of 348 750 sq. kilometers (134 650 sq. miles). This area is inhabited by various groups of Indigenous Australians. This part of Australia boasts a healthy population of indigenous people who still hold true to their customs and traditions.
Despite its harsh terrain, the Great Victoria Desert is home to a number of animals and some very hardy plants. There are a few trails which make this dessert exceptional for exploring. You simply can’t go exploring this dry part of the Great Land Down Under without visiting Ayers Rock, also known as Uluru. This giant rock formation sits in the regions of the Great Victorian Desert, the Simpson Desert, the Tanami Desert and the Gibson Desert. There is quite a lot to see and do in this desert region, but don’t venture out without an insulated water bottle.
3. The Syrian Desert, Middle East
Nestled between the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq is the Syrian Desert. This is a semi-desert covering 517 000 sq. kilometers (200 000 sq. miles). The landscape here is more stony than sandy and right in the middle of the desert is the Hamad Plateau. It receives very little in terms of rainfall and what precipitation it does receive has a tendency to flow into the region’s salt flats. Explorers that do reach the plateau have quite an impressive view from the top and the view is even more dramatic when viewed using binoculars.
Unfortunately, due to over-grazing, many plant species have died out and a lack of control in hunting has forced many species of animals to relocate making the area quite barren. The only animals still prominent in the Syrian Desert are birds, some reptiles and small rodents.
The Syrian Desert has been home to a number of Bedouin tribes with some still living in the region. There are also the remains of the Neolithic city of Palmyra for explorers interested in ancient architecture. Make sure you bring your hydration pack because you will most definitely need it.
4. Patagonian Desert, Argentina
The largest desert in Argentina and the 8th largest in the world is the Patagonian Desert. It occupies 673 000 sq. kilometers (260 000 sq. miles). Most of the Patagonian Desert is within the Argentinian border, but also shares the desert with Chile. The Patagonian Desert is relatively cold and the mercury rarely gets higher than 12 °C. For seven months of the year, the average temperature is around 3 °C and while the area is prone to a lot of frost, snow is a rare occurrence.
The Andes Mountain Range can also be found in the west of the Patagonian Desert are one of the reasons for the rarity of precipitation and form what is known as a rain shadow which is a dry area usually found on the leeward side of the mountain. This is an area where thick hiking socks and hiking gloves are a must all year round.
At various stages throughout history, the Patagonian Desert has seen its fair share of inhabitants such as Mapuches, Chileans, Argentines and the Welsh which has accounted for the farming of livestock such as horses, sheep and cattle in the region.
5. Arabian Desert, Arabian Peninsula
If you ever get a chance to trek through the Arabian Desert, you’re looking at the classic vision of what most people imagine a desert would look like. This desert makes up a huge part of the Yemen, Oman, Iraq and the Persian Gulf. The territory it covers is about 2 330 000 sq. kilometers (900 000 sq. miles) and most of it is dry and sandy with the winds blowing the dunes, frequently altering the landscape.
The Arabian Desert is home to some species of animals that have adapted to survive the extreme environment of such a hot, dry part of the world. They include animals like lizards and sand cats. Plant life is sparse, most likely do to the constant shifting of the sands.
Despite all the harshness, the Arabian Desert is not without its own beauty. The nights in particular are quite stunning. If you ever have the opportunity to explore this harsh, yet exotic landscape, make sure you do so with a local guide. A hiking app with GPS would also be advantageous.
6. Great Basin Desert, USA
The largest desert in the United States of America is the Great Basin Desert. It covers a land mass of 492 000 sq. kilometers (190000 sq. miles). The surrounding areas include the Sierra Nevada, the Rocky Mountains, the Colombia Plataea and the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. The Great Basin Desert owes its dryness due to the Sierra Nevada which effectively acts as a barrier stopping moisture from the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains do the same from the Gulf of Mexico.
The climate in the Great Basin Desert is quite extreme. Summers are very hot and dry, while winters are icy cold. But you shouldn’t rely on the seasons here, the weather can change quite drastically so if you do visit this region, be prepared for anything and don’t forget to wear good hiking shoes.
The scenery is still quite beautiful in the Great Basin Desert. The area is quite dense with various shrubs. The most common animal in the area is the prairie dog, although you may also encounter other smaller animals and birds.
7. Gobi Desert, China & Mongolia
The Gobi Desert is the largest desert in Asia. It covers a considerable amount of territory in Chain’s north and part of southern Mongolia. The area covers 1 294 000 sq. kilometers (500 000 sq. miles) and is considered to be a cold desert with lots of frost and occasional snow. It is located on a high plateau and this is the main factor to the biting cold of the region. The temperatures in the Gobi Desert can reach a high of 45 °C in the summer and drop down to -45 °C in the winter, so good winter boots and winter jackets are a must during this period. A contributing factor to these radical extremes is the winds from the Siberian Steppes.
The Gobi Desert is full of fascinating landmarks. You can find the ancient ruins of a city in Inner Mongolia, about 25 kilometres away from the town of Dalaihubu. It is still relatively intact, compared to other ancient structures along the historical Silk Road. The fascination goes even further back in time. Several enormous dinosaur footprints have been discovered by scientists in Mongolia that date back to the Cretaceous Period over 70 million years ago.
8. Sahara Desert, Northern Africa
Without a doubt the most well-known desert and the largest in Africa is the Sahara Desert. It is most certainly the largest hot desert on the planet and covers most of northern Africa spanning 9 300 000 sq. kilometres (3 600 000 sq. miles) and stretches from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It joins several of the countries in the north, such as Egypt, Sudan, Libya and Morocco, to name a few.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Sahara Desert is that it changes from an arid desert to a lush savannah in 41 000 year cycles. According to scientific research, the next time the Sahara is due to be green is around 17 000 A.D.
The Sahara is mostly covered by rocky Hamada or stony plateaus, vast seas of sand and an endless number of sand dunes. The vegetation is sparse and it is home to a variety of plants and animals that can survive in such harsh conditions. The sun is quite high in this region and temperatures seldom drop below 40 °C. This is most definitely a place where an insulated water bottle is a must, or better yet, a hydration pack.
9. Arctic Desert, Norway & Russia
The Artic Desert is a series of islands of Svalbard, Franz Josef Land, Severny Island and Severnaya Zemlya. This group of islands is covered in glaciers and snow covered rocks for most of the year. This is the opposite extreme of the classic image most people have of a desert. Far from being extremely hot, the Arctic Desert is extremely cold for most of the year, with only a short period of time where the mercury rises slightly above freezing temperature. The area of the Arctic Desert is 13 985 000 sq. kilometres (5 400 000 sq. miles) and it most commonly known as the North Pole. Vegetation is sparse in this region and the most common animals are the walrus and polar bear. Here is where your snow boots come in handy.
10. Antarctic Desert, South Pole
Interestingly, the largest desert in the world is also its own continent. Antarctica, or the South Pole is the coldest, and harshest desert imaginable. Its surface area is 14 000 000 sq. kilometres (5 500 000 sq. miles). About 98% of this icy continent is covered in ice and when coupled with extreme winds it is a place that can only be inhabited for short periods during the year. The temperature here is always below zero Celsius, often dropping to an extreme – 97 °C.
For centuries, man has been exploring this icy territory and what is interesting is that no one country claims the Antarctic Desert as its own. It is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System. Twelve countries initially signed the treaty with 38 countries following suit. At any given time it is estimated that just over 1 000 people inhabit the most southern end of the planet.
We’ve explored the 10 largest deserts in the world and discovered that the temperatures within them can go from one extreme to the next and that not all deserts are the hot and sandy wastelands we thought they were.